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Rain In The Doorway
FROM THE ROOF TOP
"HORRID!" called Mr. Larkin the moment the partners and Satin had reached his private office. "Horrid! Take Blue Mould up to the roof, but don't let him fall off. He'd splash all over one or more of our customers. If they were going out it wouldn't matter much. If they were coming in it would make a lot of difference. Is everything clear, or have I failed at some point?"
"Don't know about that," said Horrid. "What do you want us to do on the roof, old Blue Mould and me?"
"Look for a fire, of course," Mr. Larkin explained with a show of impatience. "Naturally. What does one go to roofs for? Where's your native sagacity?"
"Me native what?" asked the horrid office boy.
"It doesn't matter," explained Mr. Larkin hastily. "You haven't any. Will someone please throw something over that nude girl? Bare flesh burns me up. If it's a good fire, let me know. If not, I don't care to hear a word about it. If she sold books the way she is in the Pornographic Department we might be able to make two ends meet. What a luncheon! Well, gentlemen, to your places. We must make up for lost time. Dinner, wherever your place is, have someone bring you a chair. You'll look better off your feet. Breathe into space, if at all." The senior partner paused for breath in the midst of this executive outburst and surveyed Honor Knightly. "Splendid legs!" he said, as if to himself. "Oh, legs, legs, legs, what would we do without them?"
"Drag ourselves along," replied the Major laconically.
"Or walk on our hands," added the senior partner. "But I really wasn't asking for information. I was merely exclaiming, rather ecstatically, I thought. Do something about her legs. She owes us her life, and we owe her a dress. Someone figure that out. It doesn't seem right. Have we made up any lost time yet?"
"All," asserted Mr. Dinner. "Or nearly. May I have a slight pick-me-up? The stuff is dying on me."
"You should die with it," exclaimed Mr. Larkin. "Give him a great drink, Major. It may paralyse him. Give us all a drink—even those legs."
"Those legs would like a drink," said their fair owner. "What with smoke and Kiarians and nudity, my mind is all agog."
"I'm very much agog, too," asserted the senior partner. "It's a good word. Two g's in it like boggle, only in different places. Put something on."
The Major passed the drinks around, and everybody sat down to enjoy them, Satin draped in a Spanish shawl snatched from one of the divans.
"Of course," observed Mr. Larkin, frowning worriedly into his glass, "I hope you all realise that this is rather a poor way of making up for lost time. If anything, it's a better way to lose a lot more of it. I would be a great deal better off without any partners at all. Then I would have more money to spend and very much less lost time. Do I hear any resignations?"
"Horace," the Major assured him affectionately, "you'd be lost yourself without us."
"Would I, do you think?" Horace inquired rather anxiously. "Well, don't leave me, then—not for a moment —although, damn me, I sometimes wonder if we are running this store quite right. It's such a very big store, I should think there ought to be a great deal more bustling about and rushing places, more orders issued, and all that. It would be nice, too, if one of us knew something about figures. Our books are far more mysterious to us all than a set of detective novels. I fear our accountants cheat us terribly. You see how it is, I have to think of these things occasionally, but not, thank God, very often."
"Mr. Larkin," Satin asked him, "may I have Mr. Owen?"
"What an extraordinary request, my child," Mr. Larkin answered. "What do you want him for?"
Satin, holding the shawl tightly about her, hipped herself across the room and, bending over the senior partner, whispered into his ear a few moments. Mr. Owen did not greatly care for this sort of thing. He looked about him uncomfortably.
"Oh!" exclaimed the senior partner at last. "For that! I might have known." He paused and glanced consideringly at Mr. Owen. "Of course," he continued, "the dew is no longer on the rose:—the first blush is gone, but a slightly faded man is preferable to a fickle one. How is your health, Mr. Owen?"
"You talk of me as if I were a horse," Hector Owen protested.
"Oh, no," replied Mr. Larkin. "If you were a horse we'd talk about you in an entirely different way. We might even go so far as to examine you. People do, you know. The horses never mind. They have no shame. I admire and envy horses. They have four legs. Miss Knightly doesn't want a horse. She'd rather have you. I don't know why."
"I have my suspicions," said Mr. Dinner. "Want me to air them?"
"No," cried the senior partner hastily. "Fumigate them instead. It happens you're right. She does—and for that."
"Not a bad break," observed the Major, looking the girl over from head to toe. "Not a bad break at all. Think you feel up to it, Owen?"
"For God's sake! " exclaimed Hector Owen. "Why consult me? Wouldn't it be better to drag my clothes off and auction me on the block?"
"It might be at that," Mr. Larkin declared. "Wonder how much you'd knock down for? The women in this town are simply mad about new faces and all. You know what I mean?"
"I fear I do," said Mr. Owen. "Let's change the subject."
"And you must not forget," went on the senior partner, "you own Madame Gloria for life. That's a lot of woman to own."
Upon the reception of this information Satin swung about and furiously confronted Mr. Owen.
"Has he had relations with that trull?" she demanded.
"Only such as are possible at a sidewalk café," Mr. Larkin explained rather nervously. "They were in the presence of the public all the time. There weren't any beds about or anything like that."
"Was there an undercurrent of beds?" the girl wanted to know.
"Merely a slight strain," said Mr. Larkin. "You know how Madame Gloria is—one never gets very far away from a bed with her. I'm surprised at times she doesn't go about in one."
"I know how she is," Satin pronounced coldly. "And I know how she will be if she tries to drag a bed between me and him."
"If it were exactly in the middle," Mr. Larkin remarked thoughtfully, "you might both race for it. He'd be in the bed."
"Do you think I'd stay in the bed?" Mr. Owen demanded.
"I don't see why not," said Mr. Larkin, "if it were a comfortable bed. You'd be sure to have one of them."
"You might even get both," put in the Major. "It might be a dead heat."
"I could beat that old trollop to bed," cried Satin, "with a suit of armour on. But there's not going to be any race. That man, such as he is, is all mine, and may God pity both him and that Gloria wench if I ever catch them together."
"Haven't I any voice in the matter," Mr. Owen asked. "No locus standi?"
"I don't know what your locus standi is," she retorted, "but it doesn't sound very decent to me. I've practically reared you in pornography, and I certainly don't intend to let another woman reap the benefit of my teaching."
"Has he picked up much dirt?" Mr. Larkin asked with interest.
"Not as much as he's going to," the girl replied. "The trouble with him is, he hasn't the right kind of mind."
At this moment Horrid stuck his head in at the door.
"There's a lot of smoke," he said.
"Then there should be some fire," commented the senior partner. "Or maybe it's the other way round. Let's go up and see."
"I want a new dress," declared Satin.
"You need a new dress," agreed Mr. Larkin. "Have we any decent dresses in this store? If not, send out to some other shop and charge the stuff to us. I'll send Mr. Owen down to the Pornographic Department as soon as we've had a good look at this fire."
"If he doesn't come down," said Satin, "I'll come up and drag him down."
For a few moments after the partners had left, the girl wandered restlessly about the room, picking up this object and that, examining it curiously before casting it aside in favour of another. She went to the table and poured herself a fresh drink.
Meanwhile, the partners were comfortably seated on the roof of the store, looking at a lot of smoke. There was little else to look at. From time to time the ancient Green Mould, who Mr. Larkin suspected but was not sure should be called Blue Mould, filled their wineglasses from a bottle selected from several others set in a large tub of ice. The partners did themselves well.
"It's a nice idea to sit on the roof of one's store," observed the senior partner gently, "and contemplate fires while quaffing champagne. There should be more fires."
"Or at least some fire," put in Mr. Dinner in a small, complaining voice.
"If the three of you sent down to the Musical Department," remarked Mr. Owen, "for some fiddles, your happiness might be complete."
"We should have done better than that," complained the Major. "We started four separate and distinct fires in that hotel. Not one of them is making out worth a damn."
"I doubt if an honest fire would burn in such a thick Kiarian atmosphere," Mr. Larkin asserted. "Does Owen want some fiddles? He can have some if he does. I find phonographs much easier. Don't have to use so many fingers and hardly any ear."
Knowing he would miss nothing if he never listened to any of these conversations, Mr. Owen was gazing out over the city. Everywhere he saw broad, tree-shaded thoroughfares linked together by parks and plazas. Through the green of the trees he caught splashes of black, crimson, tan, and orange—vivid bursts of colour from the awnings and parasols flanking the graceful streets. Over the hotel they had so informally quitted, a plume of smoke hung in the light, clear air. Smoke still trailed from the windows of the banqueting hall in which high-pressure salesmen had given place to high-pressure hoses. Through the main avenue of the city a body of bright jacketed troops, their accoutrements flashing in the sun, moved rhythmically to the music of a glittering band.
"They never fight, those soldiers," the Major explained regretfully. "Can't get them to fight. All our troops are like that—too fond of clothes. You see, we've changed our mind about fighting here. Decided to give it a miss. Only sworn and accredited pacifists are allowed to join the army. When other nations get mean about things, our standing army of pacifists can talk them deaf, dumb, and blind before they can even get mobilised. Of course, a lot of sweethearts, wives, and mothers don't like the idea. They can no longer heroically sacrifice their sons, lovers, and husbands for the sake of their country. So many women are such gluttons for death and bloodshed. Frankly, I don't see a thing in it, and I've killed lots of men in my time. It's a thoroughly ill-tempered occupation. In the place of sacrificing their menfolk we allow women a little more latitude in betraying them. We don't even call it betraying any more—merely changing their luck.
Naturally, we must have soldiers, bands, and uniforms. Such things fill a fundamental craving. I like a parade myself as well as the next."
It was a long speech for the Major, but inasmuch as he was a military man Mr. Owen listened with interest. His eyes were fixed on the hills which, breaking here and there, gave glimpses of the sea. Gazing down on this beautiful city Mr. Owen found it difficult to think of war. Surely here was a place made to order for peace and play.
"Those palaces over there on the hill," said Mr. Larkin, pointing to a magnificent row of buildings in the distance, "are the homes of our retired mayors and political leaders. All built by graft. Graft, you know, my dear Owen, is also a fundamental craving. Self-interest is its brother. We used to attack graft in the old days. Now we encourage it. The only stipulation the voters make is that our grafters must share enough of their spoils with the people, spend enough on public welfare, roads, construction, amusements and holidays to keep us all happy and contented. Thus we have all the fun of being dishonest yet well governed. Dishonesty is so much more positive than its opposite, don't you think? I love to steal watches. Have you one?"
"No," replied Mr. Owen, "you just took it. I felt you."
"Then you can have it back," declared the senior partner. "There's no fun in it if you know."
Instead of returning Mr. Owen's inexpensive watch, however, he presented him with a handsome new one
"It's a better watch than yours," Mr. Larkin explained. "Got it at luncheon from our excellent W.C. You can have it if you don't mind about the initials."
“What happens to your politicians when they fail to share their graft?" asked Mr. Owen, gratefully accepting another man's property.
"What happens?" repeated Mr. Larkin in surprise. “Naturally, we run them out of town. They bore us. We don't find them amusing. You can see that for yourself. Everybody likes to eat, drink, run about with women, and have a good time. As soon as the majority of people find themselves being cramped, we have a bloodless revolution and get bad friends with the government. It's lots of fun."
"And those buildings down there in the valley," broke in Mr. Dinner, his voice embodying the satisfaction he felt, "belong to the prohibitionists and other like vermin who endeavour to thwart nature. They're jails. Very uncomfortable places."
"Do you put all prohibitionists in jail?" asked Mr. Owen.
"Not all," replied Mr. Dinner. "Not the honest ones, but there are not very many of those. These chaps down there are mostly political hypocrites, professional reformers, people with weak stomachs or otherwise mentally or physically incapacitated for enjoyment. There are a lot of anti-vice boys and girls down there. No end of them. People who would rob us of our sex. That's not right. We got to have our sex. A few years back we weren't even allowed to travel with it. Now we can take it anywhere. We found it was making women dumb, keeping them in one place all the time. Now they can see things. And they do."
"I can imagine," said Mr. Owen.
"I'm convinced you can," commented Mr. Dinner.
"How long are these prohibitionists and reformers in for?" asked Mr. Owen.
"Most of them can come out any time they want," was the surprising answer, "but they don't want to. They're ashamed. They get laughed at so much. You see, a person who votes one way, then goes home and acts another is not only a damn fool but also a damn fraud. Such people have no standing in this community. Anti-enjoyment people don't mind jail so much, anyway. There's something sadistic about jail routine that appeals to their perverted instincts."
"I see," said Mr. Owen. "In your madness there is a grain of sense. May I ask what that great walled enclosure over there is used for?"
"It's seldom if ever used," explained the Major, "but we keep it just the same. It's for the exclusive enjoyment of diplomats and statesmen either foreign or domestic. As a matter of fact, the grounds are open to all patriotic people and munition manufacturers. Whenever they get especially bloodthirsty we invite them to go in there and blow their Goddam heads off. Yet in spite of the fact that we have stocked the place with all sorts of flags and guns and gases—the very things they love so dearly—they seldom if ever can be induced to go in. We have to pitch them in whether they like it or not, Then we take pot shots at them from the walls. After that we bury them upside down and declare a public holiday."
"At the same time," observed Mr. Larkin, "it's good to do a little work, isn't it? We don't seem to be able to get around to doing any. For the last half-hour I've been wondering if sitting on this roof can, by any stretch of imagination, be called attending even loosely to business. I've about come to the conclusion it can't. We've merely gone from one way of not making up for lost time to another. That isn't right. That's very, very bad. People might get the impression we were loafers. Let's go in and look at the store for a change."
"All right," agreed Mr. Dinner. "It's not such a bum shop."
"I like it," declared the Major. "We've ever so many things to sell that nobody wants to buy. There are always enough left overs for all of us."
Tossing their wineglasses to the roof, the four partners rose and departed to look at their store. Green Mould and Horrid gagged down the remains of the wine.
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