Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley
There had been great excitement in the private offices of Beagle and Company after Gissing's sudden disappearance. Old Mr. Beagle was furious, and hotly scolded his son. In spite of his advanced age, Beagle senior was still an autocrat and insisted on regulating the details of the great business he had built up. "You numbskull!" he shouted to Beagle junior, "that fellow was worth any dozen others in the place, and you let him be fired by a mongrel superintendent."
"But, Papa," protested the vice-president, "the superintendent had to obey the rules. You know how strict the underwriters are about smoking. Of course he should have warned Gissing, instead of discharging him "
"Rules!" interrupted old Beagle fiercely--"Rules don't apply in a case like this. I tell you that fellow has a genius for storekeeping. Haven't I watched him on the floor? I've never seen one like him. What's the good of your newfangled methods, your card indexes and overhead charts, when you haven't even got a record of his address?"
Growling and showing his teeth, the head of the firm plodded stiffly downstairs and discharged the superintendent himself. Already he saw signs of disorganization in the main aisle. Miss Whippet was tearful: customers were waiting impatiently to have exchange slips O. K.'d: Mrs. Dachshund was turning over some jewelled lorgnettes, but it was plain that she was only "looking," and had no intention to purchase.
So when, after many vain inquiries, the advertisement reached its target, the old gentleman welcomed Gissing with genuine emotion. He received him into his private office, locked the door, and produced a decanter. Evidently beneath his irritable moods he had sensibilities of his own.
"I have given my life to trade," he said, "and I have grown weary of watching the half-hearted simpletons who imagine they can rise to the top by thinking more about themselves than they do about the business. You, Mr. Gissing, have won my heart. You see storekeeping as I do--a fine art, an absorbing passion, a beautiful, thrilling sport. It is an art as lovely and subtle as the theatre, with the same skill in wooing and charming the public."
Gissing bowed, and drank Mr. Beagle's health, to cover his astonishment. The aged merchant fixed him with a glittering eye.
"I can see that storekeeping is your genius in life. I can see that you are naturally consecrated to it. My son is a good steady fellow, but he lacks the divine gift. I am getting old. We need new fire, new brains, in the conduct of this business. I ask you to forgive the unlucky blunder we made lately, and devote yourself to us."
Gissing was very much embarrassed. He wanted to say that if he was going to consecrate himself to floorwalking, he would relish a raise in salary; but old Beagle was so tremulous and kept blowing his nose so loudly that Gissing doubted if he could make himself heard.
"I want you to take a position as General Manager," said Mr. Beagle, "with a salary of ten thousand a year."
He rose and threw open a mahogany door that led out of his own sanctum. "Here is your office," he said.
The bewildered Gissing looked about the room --the mahogany flat-topped desk with a great sheet of plate glass shining greenly at its thick edges; an inkwell, pens and pencils, a little glass bowl full of bright paper-clips; one of those rocking blotters that are so tempting; a water cooler which just then uttered a seductive gulping bubble; an electric fan, gently humming; wooden trays for letters and memoranda; on one wall a great chart of names, lettered Organization of Personnel; a nice domestic-looking hat-and-coat stand; a soft green rug--Ah, how alluring it all was!
Mr. Beagle pointed to the outer door of the room, which had a frosted pane. Through the glass the astounded floorwalker could read the words
What a delightful little room to meditate in. From the broad windows he could see the whole shining tideway of Fifth Avenue, passing lazily in the warm sunlight. He turned to Mr. Beagle, greatly moved.
The next day an advertisement appeared in the leading papers, to this effect:--
________________________ BEAGLE AND COMPANY take pleasure in announcing to their patrons and friends that MR. GISSING has been admitted to the firm in the status of General Manager Je Maintiendrai __________________________
Mrs. Purp's excitement at this is easier imagined than described. Her only fear was that now she would lose her best lodger. She made Purp go out and buy a new shirt and a collar; she told Gissing, rather pathetically, that she intended to have the whole house repapered in the fall. The big double suite downstairs, which could be used as bedroom and sitting-room, she suggested as a comfortable change. But Gissing preferred to remain where he was. He had grown fond of the top floor.
Certainly there was an exhilaration in his new importance and prosperity. The store buzzed with the news. At his request, Miss Whippet was promoted to the seventh floor to be his secretary. It was delightful to make his morning tour of inspection through the vast building. Mr. Hound, the store detective, loved to tell his cronies how suspiciously he had followed "The Duke" that first day. As Gissing moved through the busy departments he saw eyes following him, tails wagging. Customers were more flattered than ever by his courteous attentions. One day he even held a little luncheon party in the restaurant, at which Mrs. Dachshund, Mrs. Mastiff, and Mrs. Sealyham were his guests. He invited their husbands, but the latter were too busy to come. It would have been more prudent of them to attend. That afternoon Mrs. Dachshund, carried away by enthusiasm, bought a platinum wrist-watch. Mrs. Mastiff bought a diamond dog-collar. Mrs. Sealyham, whose husband was temporarily embarrassed in Wall Street, contented herself with a Sheraton chifforobe.
But it began to be evident that his delightful little office was not going to be a shrine for quiet meditation. His vanity had been pleased by the large advertisement about him, but he suddenly realized the poison that lies in printer's ink. Almost overnight, it seemed, he had been added to ten thousand mailing lists. Little Miss Whippet, although she was fast at typewriting, was hard put to it to keep up with his correspondence. She quivered eagerly over her machine, her small paws flying. New pink ribbons gleamed through her translucent summery georgette blouse. They were her flag of exultation at her surprising rise in life. She felt it was immensely important to get all these letters answered promptly.
And so did Gissing. In his new zeal, and in his innocent satisfaction at having entered the inner circle of Big Business, he insisted on answering everything. He did not realize that dictating letters is the quaint diversion of business men, and that most of them mean nothing. It is simply the easiest way of assuring yourself that you are busy.
This job was no sinecure. Old Mr. Beagle had so much affectionate confidence in Gissing that he referred almost everything to him for decision. Mr. Beagle junior, perhaps a little annoyed at the floorwalker's meteoric translation, spent the summer afternoons at golf. The infinite details of a great business crowded upon him. Inexperienced, he had not learned the ways in which seasoned "executives" protect themselves against useless intrusion. His telephone buzzed like a hornet. Not five minutes went by without callers or interruptions of some sort.
Most amazing of all, he found, was the miscellaneous passion for palaver displayed by Big Business. Immediately he was invited to join innumerable clubs, societies, merchants' associations. Every day would arrive letters, on heavily embossed paper--"The Sales Managers Club will hold a round-table discussion on Friday at one o'clock. We would greatly appreciate it if you would be with us and say a few words."-- "Will you be our guest at the monthly dinner of the Fifth Avenue Guild, and give us any preachment that is on your mind?"--"The Merchandising Uplift Group of Murray Hill will meet at the Commodore for an informal lunch. It has been suggested that you contribute to the discussion on Underwriting Overhead."--"The Executives Association plans a clambake and barbecue at the Barking Rock Country Club. Around the bonfire a few impromptu remarks on Business Cycles will be called for. May we count on you?"--"Will you address the Convention of Knitted Bodygarment Buyers, on whatever topic is nearest your heart?"-- "Will you write for Bunion and Callous, the trade organ of the Floorwalkers' Union, a thousand-word review of your career?"-- "Will you broadcast a twenty-minute talk on Department Store Ethics, at the radio station in Newark? 250,000 radio fans will be listening in." New to the strange and high-spirited world of "executives," it was natural that Gissing did not realize that the net importance of this kind of thing was absolute zero. It did strike him as odd, perhaps, that merchants did not dare to go on a junket or plan a congenial dinner without pretending to themselves that it had some business significance. But, having been so amazingly lifted into this atmosphere of great affairs, he felt it was his duty to the store to play the game according to the established rules. He was borne along on a roaring spate of conferences, telephone calls, appointments, Rotarian lunches, Chamber of Commerce dinners, picnics to talk tariff, house-parties to discuss demurrage, tennis tournaments to settle the sales-tax, golf foursomes to regulate price-maintenance. Of all these matters he knew nothing whatever; and he also saw that as far as the business of Beagle and Company was concerned it would be better not to waste his time on such side-issues. The way he could really be of service was in the store itself, tactfully lubricating that complicated engine of goods and personalities. But he learned to utter, when called upon, a few suave generalities, barbed with a rollicking story. This made him always welcome. He was of a studious disposition, and liked to examine this queer territory of life with an unprejudiced eye. After all, his inward secret purpose had nothing to do with the success or failure of retail trade. He was still seeking a horizon that would stay blue when he reached it.
More and more he was interested to perceive how transparent the mummery of business was. He was interested to note how persistently men fled from success, how carefully most of them avoided the obvious principles of utility, honesty, prudence, and courtesy, which are inevitably rewarded. These sagacious, humorous fellows who were amusing themselves with twaddling trade apothegms and ridiculous banqueteering solemnities, surely they were aware that this had no bearing upon their own jobs? He suspected that it was all a feverish anodyne to still some inward unease. Since they must (not being fools) be aware that these antics were mere subtraction of time from their business, the obvious conclusion was, they were not happy with business. There was some strange wistfulness in the conduct of Big Business Dogs, he thought. Under the pretence of transacting affairs, they were really trying to discover something that had eluded them.
The same thing, strangely enough, seemed to be going on in a sphere of which he knew nothing, the world of art. He gathered from the papers that writers, painters, musicians, were holding shindies almost every night, at which delightful rebels, too busy to occupy themselves with actual creation, talked charmingly about their plans. Poets were reading poems incessantly, forgetting to write any. Much of the newspaper comment on literature made him shudder, for though this was a province quite strange to him, he had sound instincts. He discerned fatal ignorance and absurdity between the pompous lines. Yet, in its own way, it seemed a bold and honest ignorance. Were these, too, like the wistful executives, seeking where the blue begins?
But what was this strange agitation that forbade his fellow-creatures from enjoying the one thing that makes achievement possible--Solitude? He himself, so happy to be left alone--was no one else like that? And yet this very solitude that he craved and revelled in was, by a sublime paradox, haunted by mysterious loneliness. He felt sometimes as though his heart had been broken off from some great whole, to which it yearned to be reunited. It felt like a bone that had been buried, which God would some day dig up. Sometimes, in his caninomorphic conception of deity, he felt near him the thunder of those mighty paws. In rare moments of silence he gazed from his office window upon the sun-gilded, tempting city. Her madness was upon him--her splendid craze of haste, ambition, pride. Yet he wondered. This God he needed, this liberating horizon, was it after all in the cleverest of hiding-places--in himself? Was it in his own undeluded heart?
Miss Whippet came scurrying in to say that the Display Manager begged him to attend a conference. The question of apportioning window space to the various departments was to be reconsidered. Also, the book department had protested having rental charged against them for books exhibited merely to add a finishing touch to a furniture display. Other agenda: the Personnel Director wished an appointment to discuss the ruling against salesbitches bobbing their hair. The Commissary Department wished to present revised figures as to the economy that would be effected by putting the employees' cafeteria on the same floor as the store's restaurant. He must decide whether early closing on Saturdays would continue until Labor Day.
As he went about these and a hundred other fascinating trivialities, he had a painful sense of treachery to Mr. Beagle senior. The old gentleman was so touchingly certain that he had found in him the ideal shoulders on which to unload his honourable and crushing burden. With more than paternal pride old Beagle saw Gissing, evidently urbane and competent, cheerfully circulating here and there. The shy angel of doubt that lay deep in Gissing's cider-coloured eye, the proprietor did not come near enough to observe.
If there is tragedy in our story, alas here it is. Gissing, incorrigible seceder from responsibilities that did not touch his soul, did not dare tell his benefactor the horrid truth. But the worm was in his heart. Late one night, in his room at Mrs. Purp's, he wrote a letter to Mr. Poodle. After mailing it at a street-box, he had a sudden pang. To the dreamer, decisions are fearful. Then he shook himself and ran lightly to a little lunchroom on Amsterdam Avenue, where he enjoyed doughnuts and iced tea. His mind was resolved. The doughnuts, by a simple symbolism, made him think of Rotary Clubs, also of millstones. No, he must be fugitive from honour, from wealth, from Chambers of Commerce. Fugitive from all save his own instinct. Those who have bound themselves are only too eager to see the chains on others. There was no use attempting to explain to Mr. Beagle--the dear old creature would not understand.
The next day, after happily and busily discharging his duties, and staying late to clean up his desk, Gissing left Beagle and Company for good. The only thing that worried him, as he looked round his comfortable office for the last time, was the thought of little Miss Whippet's chagrin when she found her new promotion at an end. She had taken such delight in their mutual dignity. On the filing cabinet beside her typewriter desk was a pink geranium in a pot, which she watered every morning. He could not resist pulling out a drawer of her desk, and smiled gently to see the careful neatness of its compartments, with all her odds and ends usefully arranged. The ink-eraser, with an absurd little whisk attached to it for brushing away fragments of rubbed paper; the fascicle of sharpened pencils held together by an elastic band; the tiny phial of typewriter oil; a small box of peppermints; a crumpled handkerchief; the stenographic notebook with a pencil inserted at the blank page, so as to be ready for instant service the next day; the long paper-cutter for slitting envelopes; her memorandum pad, on which was written Remind Mr. G. of Window Display Luncheon--it seemed cruel to deprive her of all these innocent amusements in which she delighted so much. And yet he could not go on as a General Manager simply for the happiness of Miss Whippet.
In the foliage of the geranium, where he knew she would find it the first thing in the morning, he left a note:--
MISS WHIPPET: I am leaving the store to-night and will not be back. Please notify Mr. Beagle. Explain to him that I shall never take a position with one of his competitors; I am leaving not because I didn't enjoy the job, but because if I stayed longer I might enjoy it too much. Tell Mr. Beagle that I specially urge him to retain you as assistant to the new Manager, whoever that may be. You are entirely competent to attend to the routine, and the new Manager can spend all his time at business lunches.
Please inform the Display Managers' Club that I can't speak at their meeting to-morrow.
I wish you all possible good-fortune.
As he passed through the dim and silent aisles of the store, he surveyed them again with mixed emotions. Here he might, apparently, have been king. But he had no very poignant regret. Another of his numerous selves, he reflected, had committed suicide. That was the right idea: to keep sloughing them off, throwing overboard the unreal and factitious Gissings, paring them down until he discovered the genuine and inalienable creature.
And so, for the second time, he made a stealthy exit from the employees' door.
Four days later he read in the paper of old Mr. Beagle's death. There can be no doubt about it. The merchant died of a broken heart.