‘Good afternoon, Mrs Weaver. Good afternoon, Mrs Penn. What terrible weather!’
‘Shocking!’ said Mrs Penn.
He stood aside to let them pass. Mrs Weaver upset her rush basket and spilled onto the floor a much-thumbed copy of Ethel M. Dell’s Silver Wedding. Mrs Penn’s bright bird-eye lighted upon it. Behind Mrs Weaver’s back she smiled up at Gordon, archly, as highbrow to highbrow. Dell! The lowness of it! The books these lower classes read! Understandingly, he smiled back. They passed into the library, highbrow to highbrow smiling.
Mrs Penn laid The Forsyte Saga on the table and turned her sparrow-bosom upon Gordon. She was always very affable to Gordon. She addressed him as Mister Comstock, shopwalker though he was, and held literary conversations with him. There was the freemasonry of highbrows between them.
‘I hope you enjoyed The Forsyte Saga, Mrs Penn?’
‘What a perfectly marvellous achievement that book is, Mr Comstock! Do you know that that makes the fourth time I’ve read it? An epic, a real epic!’
Mrs Weaver nosed among the books, too dim-witted to grasp that they were in alphabetical order.
‘I don’t know what to ’ave this week, that I don’t,’ she mumbled through untidy lips. ‘My daughter she keeps on at me to ’ave a try at Deeping. She’s great on Deeping, my daughter is. But my son-in-law, now, ’e’s more for Burroughs. I don’t know, I’m sure.’
A spasm passed over Mrs Penn’s face at the mention of Burroughs. She turned her back markedly on Mrs Weaver.
‘What I feel, Mr Comstock, is that there’s something so big about Galsworthy. He’s so broad, so universal, and yet at the same time so thoroughly English in spirit, so human. His books are real human documents.’
‘And Priestley, too,’ said Gordon. ‘I think Priestley’s such an awfully fine writer, don’t you?’
‘Oh, he is! So big, so broad, so human! And so essentially English!’
Mrs Weaver pursed her lips. Behind them were three isolated yellow teeth.
‘I think p’raps I can’t do better’n ’ave another Dell,’ she said. ‘You ’ave got some more Dells, ’aven’t you? I do enjoy a good read of Dell, I must say. I says to my daughter, I says, “You can keep your Deepings and your Burroughses. Give me Dell,” I says.’
Ding Dong Dell! Dukes and dogwhips! Mrs Penn’s eye signalled highbrow irony. Gordon returned her signal. Keep in with Mrs Penn! A good, steady customer.
‘Oh, certainly, Mrs Weaver. We’ve got a whole shelf by Ethel M. Dell. Would you like The Desire of his Life? Or perhaps you’ve read that. Then what about The Altar of Honour?’
‘I wonder whether you have Hugh Walpole’s latest book?’ said Mrs Penn. ‘I feel in the mood this week for something epic, something big. Now Walpole, you know, I consider a really great writer, I put him second only to Galsworthy. There’s something so big about him. And yet he’s so human with it.’
‘And so essentially English,’ said Gordon.
‘Oh, of course! So essentially English!’
‘I b’lieve I’ll jest ’ave The Way of an Eagle over again,’ said Mrs Weaver finally. ‘You don’t never seem to get tired of The Way of an Eagle, do you, now?’
‘It’s certainly astonishingly popular,’ said Gordon, diplomatically, his eye on Mrs Penn.
‘Oh, astonishingly!’ echoed Mrs Penn, ironically, her eye on Gordon.
He took their twopences and sent them happy away, Mrs Penn with Walpole’s Rogue Herries and Mrs Weaver with The Way of an Eagle.
Soon he had wandered back to the other room and towards the shelves of poetry. A melancholy fascination, those shelves had for him. His own wretched book was there—skied, of course, high up among the unsaleable. Mice, by Gordon Comstock; a sneaky little foolscap octavo, price three and sixpence but now reduced to a bob. Of the thirteen BFs who had reviewed it (and The Times Lit. Supp. had declared that it showed ‘exceptional promise’) not one had seen the none too subtle joke of that title. And in the two years he had been at McKechnie’s bookshop, not a single customer, not a single one, had ever taken Mice out of its shelf.
There were fifteen or twenty shelves of poetry. Gordon regarded them sourly. Dud stuff, for the most part. A little above eye-level, already on their way to heaven and oblivion, were the poets of yesteryear, the stars of his earlier youth. Yeats, Davies, Housman, Thomas, De la Mare, Hardy. Dead stars. Below them, exactly at eye-level, were the squibs of the passing minute. Eliot, Pound, Auden, Campbell, Day Lewis, Spender. Very damp squibs, that lot. Dead stars above, damp squibs below. Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading? But Lawrence was all right, and Joyce even better before he went off his coco-nut. And if we did get a writer worth reading, should we know him when we saw him, so choked as we are with trash?
Ping! Shop bell. Gordon turned. Another customer.
A youth of twenty, cherry-lipped, with gilded hair, tripped Nancifully in. Moneyed, obviously. He had the golden aura of money. He hadn’t been in the shop before. Gordon assumed the gentlemanly-servile mien reserved for new customers. He repeated the usual formula:
‘Good afternoon. Can I do anything for you? Are you looking for any particular book?’
‘Oh, no, not weally.’ An R-less Nancy voice. ‘May I just bwowse? I simply couldn’t wesist your fwont window. I have such a tewwible weakness for bookshops! So I just floated in—tee-hee!’
Float out again, then, Nancy. Gordon smiled a cultured smile, as booklover to booklover.
‘Oh, please do. We like people to look round. Are you interested in poetry, by any chance?’
‘Oh, of course! I adore poetwy!’
Of course! Mangy little snob. There was a sub-artistic look about his clothes. Gordon slid a ‘slim’ red volume from the poetry shelves.
‘These are just out. They might interest you, perhaps. They’re translations—something rather out of the common. Translations from the Bulgarian.’
Very subtle, that. Now leave him to himself. That’s the proper way with customers. Don’t hustle them; let them browse for twenty minutes or so; then they get ashamed and buy something. Gordon moved to the door, discreetly, keeping out of Nancy’s way; yet casually, one hand in his pocket, with the insouciant air proper to a gentleman.
Outside, the slimy street looked grey and drear. From somewhere round the corner came the clatter of hooves, a cold hollow sound. Caught by the wind, the dark columns of smoke from the chimneys veered over and rolled flatly down the sloping roofs. Ah!
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And the dark ribbons of the chimneys
Veer downward tumty tumty (something
like ‘murky’) air.
Good. But the impulse faded. His eye fell again upon the ad-posters across the street.
He almost wanted to laugh at them, they were so feeble, so dead-alive, so unappetising. As though anybody could be tempted by those! Like succubi with pimply backsides. But they depressed him all the same. The money-stink, everywhere the money-stink. He stole a glance at the Nancy, who had drifted away from the poetry shelves and taken out a large expensive book on the Russian ballet. He was holding it delicately between his pink non-prehensile paws, as a squirrel holds a nut, studying the photographs. Gordon knew his type. The moneyed ‘artistic’ young man. Not an artist himself, exactly, but a hanger-on of the arts; frequenter of studios, retailer of scandal. A nice-looking boy, though, for all his Nancitude. The skin at the back of his neck was as silky-smooth as the inside of a shell. You can’t have a skin like that under five hundred a year. A sort of charm he had, a glamour, like all moneyed people. Money and charm; who shall separate them?
Gordon thought of Ravelston, his charming, rich friend, editor of Antichrist, of whom he was extravagantly fond, and whom he did not see so often as once in a fortnight; and of Rosemary, his girl, who loved him—adored him, so she said—and who, all the same, had never slept with him. Money, once again; all is money. All human relationships must be purchased with money. If you have no money, men won’t care for you, women won’t love you; won’t, that is, care for you or love you the last little bit that matters. And how right they are, after all! For, moneyless, you are unlovable. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels. But then, if I haven’t money, I don’t speak with the tongues of men and of angels.
He looked again at the ad-posters. He really hated them this time. That Vitamalt one, for instance! ‘Hike all day on a Slab of Vitamalt!’ A youthful couple, boy and girl, in clean-minded hiking kit, their hair picturesquely tousled by the wind, climbing a stile against a Sussex landscape. That girl’s face! The awful bright tomboy cheeriness of it! The kind of girl who goes in for Plenty of Clean Fun. Windswept. Tight khaki shorts but that doesn’t mean you can pinch her backside. And next to them—Roland Butta. ‘Roland Butta enjoys his meal with Bovex.’ Gordon examined the thing with the intimacy of hatred. The idiotic grinning face, like the face of a self-satisfied rat, the slick black hair, the silly spectacles. Roland Butta, heir of the ages; victor of Waterloo, Roland Butta, Modern man as his masters want him to be. A docile little porker, sitting in the money-sty, drinking Bovex.
Faces passed, wind-yellowed. A tram boomed across the square, and the clock over the Prince of Wales struck three. A couple of old creatures, a tramp or beggar and his wife, in long greasy overcoats that reached almost to the ground, were shuffling towards the shop. Book-pinchers, by the look of them. Better keep an eye on the boxes outside. The old man halted on the kerb a few yards away while his wife came to the door. She pushed it open and looked up at Gordon, between grey strings of hair, with a sort of hopeful malevolence.
‘Ju buy books?’ she demanded hoarsely.
‘Sometimes. It depends what books they are.’
‘I gossome lovely books ’ere.’
She came in, shutting the door with a clang. The Nancy glanced over his shoulder distastefully and moved a step or two away, into the corner. The old woman had produced a greasy little sack from under her overcoat. She moved confidentially nearer to Gordon. She smelt of very, very old breadcrusts.
‘Will you ’ave ’em?’ she said, clasping the neck of the sack. ‘Only ’alf a crown the lot.’
‘What are they? Let me see them, please.’
‘Lovely books, they are,’ she breathed, bending over to open the sack and emitting a sudden very powerful whiff of breadcrusts.
‘’Ere!’ she said, and thrust an armful of filthy-looking books almost into Gordon’s face.
They were an 1884 edition of Charlotte M. Yonge’s novels, and had the appearance of having been slept on for many years. Gordon stepped back, suddenly revolted.
‘We can’t possibly buy those,’ he said shortly.
‘Can’t buy ’em? Why can’t yer buy ’em?’
‘Because they’re no use to us. We can’t sell that kind of thing.’
‘Wotcher make me take ’em out o’ me bag for, then?’ demanded the old woman ferociously.