Jonah

Contents:
Author: Louis Stone

Chapter 12 the Sign of the "Silver Shoe"

The suburban trains slid into the darkness of the tunnel at Cleveland Street, and, as they emerged into daylight on the other side, paused for a moment like intelligent animals before the spider’s web of shining rails that curved into the terminus, as if to choose the pair that would carry them in safety to the platform. It was in this pause that the passengers on the left looked out with an upward jerk of the head, and saw that the sun had found a new plaything in Regent Street.

It was the model of a shoe, fifteen feet long, the hugest thing within sight, covered with silver leaf that glittered like metal in the morning sun. A gang of men had hoisted it into position last night by the flare of naphtha lamps, and now it trod securely on air above the new bootshop whose advertisement sprawled across half a page of the morning paper.

In Regent Street a week of painting and hammering had prepared them for surprises; two shops had been knocked into one, with two plate-glass windows framed in brass, and now the shop with its triumphant sign caught the eye like a check suit or a red umbrella. Every inch of the walls was covered with lettering in silver leaf, and across the front in huge characters ran the sign:

JONAH’S SILVER SHOE EMPORIUM

Meanwhile, the shop was closed, the windows obscured by blinds; but the children, attracted by the noise of hammering, flattened their noses against the plate glass, trying to spy out the busy privacy within. Evening fell, and the hammering ceased. Then, precisely on the stroke of seven, the electric lights flashed out, the curtains were withdrawn, and the shop stood smiling like a coquette at her first ball.

Everything was new. The fittings glistened with varnish, mirrors and brass rods reflected the light at every angle, and the building was packed from roof to floor with boots. The shelves were loaded with white cardboard boxes containing the better sort of boot. But there was not room enough on the shelves, and boots and shoes hung from the ceiling like bunches of fruit; they clung to brass rods like swarming bees. The strong, peculiar odour of leather clogged the air. The shopmen stood about, whispering to one another or changing the position of a pair of boots as they waited for the customers.

A crowd had gathered round the window on the left, which was fitted out like a workshop. On one side a clicker was cutting uppers from the skin; beside him a girl sat at a machine stitching the uppers together at racing speed. On the other side a man stood at a bench lasting the uppers to the insoles, and then pegging for dear life; near him sat a finisher, who shaved and blackened the rough edges, handing the finished article to a boy, who gave it a coat of gloss and placed it in the front of the window for inspection. A placard invited the public to watch the process of making Jonah’s Famous Silver Shoes. The people crowded about as if it were a play, delighted with the novelty, following the stages in the growth of a boot with the pleasure of a boy examining the inside of a watch.

At eight o’clock another surprise was ready. A brass band began to play popular airs on the balcony, hung about with Chinese lanterns, and a row of electric bulbs flashed out, marking the outline of the wonderful silver shoe, glittering and gigantic in the white light.

The crowd looked up, and made bets on the length of the shoe, and recalled the time, barely five years ago, when the same man—Jonah the hunchback—had astonished Botany Road with his flaring signs in red and white. True, his shop was still on the Road, for Regent Street is but the fag end of a long, dusty road where it saunters into town, snobbishly conscious of larger buildings and higher rents. Since then his progress had been marked by removals, and each step had carried him nearer to the great city. He had outgrown his shops as a boy outgrows his trousers.

It was reported that everything turned to gold that he touched. It was certain that he had captured the trade of the Road, and this move meant that he had fastened his teeth in the trade of the roaring city. And not so long ago people could remember when he was a common larrikin, reputed leader of the Cardigan Street Push, and working for old Paasch, whose shop was now empty, his business absorbed by Jonah with the ease one swallows a lozenge. And they say he began life as a street-arab, selling papers and sleeping in the gutter. Well, some people’s luck was marvellous!

The crowd became so dense that the police cleared a passage through it, and the carts and buses slackened to a walk as they passed the shop, where the electric lights glittered, the Chinese lanterns swung gaily in the breeze, and the band struck noisily into the airs from a comic opera.

Meanwhile the shop was crowded with customers, impatient to be served, each carrying a coupon cut from the morning paper, which entitled the holder to a pair of Jonah’s Famous Silver Shoes at cost price. And near the door, in an interval of business, stood the proprietor, a hunchback, his grey eyes glittering with excitement at seeing his dream realized, the huge shop, spick and span as paint could make it, the customers jostling one another as they passed in and out, and the coin clinking merrily in the till.

Yes, they were quite right. Everything that he touched turned to gold. Outsiders confused his fortune with the luck of the man who draws the first prize in a sweep, enriched without effort by a chance turn of Fortune’s wrist. They were blind to the unresting labour, the ruthless devices that left his rivals gaping, and the fixed idea that shaped everything to its needs. In five years he had fought his way down the Road, his line of march dotted with disabled rivals.

Old Paasch, the German, had been his first victim. Bewildered and protesting, he had succumbed to Jonah’s novel methods of attack as a savage goes down under the fire of machine-guns. His shop was closed years ago, and he lived in a stuffy room, smelling vilely of tobacco-smoke, where he taught the violin to hazardous pupils for little more than a crust. He always spoke of Jonah with a vague terror in his blue eyes, convinced that he had once employed Satan as an errand-boy.

People were surprised to find that Jonah meant to live in the rooms over the new shop, when he could well afford to take a private house in the suburbs. It was said he treated his wife like dirt; that they lived like cat and dog; that he grudged her bare living and clothing. Jonah set his lips grimly on a hint of these rumours.

Three years ago he had planted Ada in a house of her own, and had gone home daily to rooms choked with dirt, for with years of ease she had grown more slovenly. Servants were a failure, for she made a friend of them, and their families lived in luxury at her expense. And when Ada was left alone, the meals were never ready, the house was like a pigsty, and she sat complacently amidst the dirt, reading penny novelettes in a gaudy dressing-jacket, or entertaining her old pals from the factory.

These would sit through an afternoon with envy in their hearts, and cries of wonder on their lips at the sight of some useless and costly article, which Ada, with the instinct of the parvenu, had bought to dazzle their eyes. For she remained on the level where she was born, and the gaping admiration of her poorer friends was the only profit she drew from Jonah’s success. If Jonah arrived without warning, they tumbled over one another to get out unseen by the back door, but never forgot to carry away some memento of their visit—a tin of salmon, a canister of tea, a piece of bacon, a bottle whose label puzzled them—for Ada bestowed gifts like Royalty, with the invariable formula "Oh! take it; there’s plenty more where that comes from."

But the worst was her neglect of Ray, now seven years old, and the apple of Jonah’s eye. She certainly spent part of the morning in dressing him up in his clothes, which were always new, for they were discarded by Jonah when the creases wore off; but when this duty, which she was afraid to neglect, was ended, she sent him out into the street to play in the gutter. His meals were the result of hazard, starving one day, and over-eating the next. And then, one day, some stains which Ada had been unable to sponge out elicited a stammering tale of a cart-wheel that had stopped three inches from the prostrate child.

This had finished Jonah, and with an oath he had told Ada to pack up, and move into the rooms over the shop, when they could be got ready. Ada made a scene, grumbled and sulked, but Jonah would take no more risks. His son and his shop, he had fathered both, and they should be brought together under his watchful eye, and Ada’s parasites could sponge elsewhere.

It had happened in time for him to have the living-rooms fitted up over the shop, for the part which was required as a store-room left ample space for a family of three. Ada gave in with a sullen anger, refusing to notice the splendours of the new establishment. But she had a real terror, besides her objection to being for ever under Jonah’s sharp eyes.

Born and bred in a cottage, she had a natural horror of staircases, looking on them as dangerous contrivances on which people daily risked their lives. She climbed them slowly, feeling for safety with her feet, and descended with her heart in her mouth. The sight of others tripping lightly up and down impressed her like a dangerous performance on the tight-rope in a circus. And the new rooms could only be reached by two staircases, one at the far end of the shop, winding like a corkscrew to the upper floor, and another, sickening to the eye, dropping from the rear balcony in the open air to the kitchen and the yard.

Mrs Yabsley continued to live in the old cottage in Cardigan Street. Jonah made her an allowance, but she still worked at the laundry, not for a living, as she carefully explained to every new customer, but for the sake of exercise. And she had obstinately refused to be pensioned off.

"I’ve seen too many of them pensioners, creepin’ an’ coughin’ along the street, because they thought they was too old fer work, an’ one fine mornin’ they fergit ter come down ter breakfust, an’ the neighbours are invited to the funeral. An’ but for that they might ’ave lived fer years, drawin’ their money an’ standin’ in the way of younger men. No pensions fer me, thank yer!"

When Jonah had pointed out that she could not live alone in the cottage, she had listened with a mysterious smile. With Jonah’s allowance and her earnings, she was the rich woman, the lady chatelaine of the street, and she chose a companion from the swarm of houseless women that found a precarious footing in the houses of their relations—women with raucous voices, whose husbands had grown tired of life and fled; ladies who were vaguely supposed to be widows; comely young women cast on a cold world with a pitiful tale and a handbag. And she fed them till they were plump and vicious again, when they invariably disappeared, taking everything of value they could lay hands on. When Jonah, exasperated by these petty thefts, begged her to come and live with them, she shook her head, with a humorous twinkle in her eyes.

"No, yer’d ’ave ter pull me up by the roots like that old tree if yer took me out of this street. I remember w’en ’arf this street was open paddicks, an’ now yer can’t stick a pin between the ’ouses. I was a young gell then, an’ a lot better lookin’ than yer’d think. Ada’s father thought a lot o’ me, I tell yer. That was afore ’e took ter drink. I was ’is first love, as the sayin’ is, but beer was ’is second. ’E was a good ’usbind ter me wot time ’e could spare from the drink, an’ I buried ’im out of this very ’ouse, w’en Ada could just walk. I often think life’s a bloomin’ fraud, Joe, w’ichever way yer look at it. W’en ye’re young, it promises yer everythin’ yer want, if yer only wait. An’ w’en ye’re done waitin’, yer’ve lost yer teeth an’ yer appetite, or forgot wot yer were waitin’ for. Yes, Joe, the street an’ me’s old pals. We’ve seen one another in sickness an’ sorrer an’ joy an’ jollification, an’ it ’ud be a poor job ter part us now. Funny, ain’t it? This street is more like a ’uman bein’ ter me than plenty I know. Yer see, I can’t read the paper, an’ see ’oo’s bin married and murdered through the week, bein’ no scholar, but I can read Cardigan Street like a book. An’ I’ve found that wot ’appens in this street ’appens everywhere else, if yer change the names an’ addresses."

About a week after the triumphant opening of the Silver Shoe, Jonah was running his eye down some price-lists, when he was disturbed by a loud noise. He looked round, and was surprised to see Miss Giltinan, head of the ladies’ department, her lips tight with anger, replacing a heap of cardboard boxes with jerks of suppressed fury.

She was his best saleswoman, gathered in from the pavement a week after she had been ejected from Packard’s factory for cheeking the boss. She had spent a few weeks dusting shoes and tying up parcels, and then, brushing the old hands aside, had taken her place as a born saleswoman. Sharp as a needle, the customers were like clay in her hands. She recognized two classes of buyers—those who didn’t know what they wanted, and always, under her guidance, spent more than they intended, and those who knew quite well what they wanted, the best quality at an impossible price. Both went away satisfied, for she took them into her confidence, and, with covert glances for fear she should be overheard, gave them her private opinion of the articles in a whisper. And they went away satisfied that they had saved money, and made a friend who would always look after their interests. But this morning she was blazing.

"Save the pieces, Mary," said Jonah, "wot’s the matter?"

"A woman in there’s got me beat," replied the girl savagely—"says she must ’ave Kling & Wessel’s, an’ we ’aven’t got a pair in the place. Not likely either, when the firm’s gone bung; but I wasn’t goin’ to tell ’er that. Better come an’ try ’er yourself, or she’ll get away with ’er money."

As Jonah entered, the troublesome customer looked up with an air of great composure. She was a young woman of five-and-twenty, tall, dark, and slight, with features more uncommon than beautiful. Her face seemed quite familiar to Jonah.

"Good mornin’, Miss. Can I ’elp you in any way?" he said, trying to remember where he had seen her before.

"So sorry to trouble you, but my feet are rather a nuisance," she said, in a voice that broke like the sound of harps and flutes on Jonah’s ear.

Jonah noted mechanically that her eyes were brown, peculiar, and luminous as if they glowed from within. They were marked by dark eyebrows that formed two curves of remarkable beauty. She showed her teeth in a smile; they were small and white and even, so perfect that they passed for false with strangers. She explained that she had an abnormally high instep, and could only be fitted by one brand of shoe. She showed her foot, cased in a black stocking, and the sight of it carried Jonah back to Cardigan Street and the push, for the high instep was a distinguished mark of beauty among the larrikins, adored by them with a Chinese reverence.

"I can only wear Kling & Wessel’s, and your assistant tells me you are out of them at present," she continued, "so I am afraid I must give it up as a bad job." She picked up her shoe, and Jonah was seized with an imperious desire to keep her in the shop at any cost.

"I’m afraid yer’ve worn yer last pair of that make," said Jonah. "The Americans ’ave driven them off the market, and the agency’s closed."

"How annoying! I must wear shoes. Whatever shall I do?" she replied, staring at the shelves as if lost in thought.

Jonah marked with an extraordinary pleasure every detail of her face and dress. The stuff was a cheap material, but it was cut and worn with a daintiness that marked her off from the shopgirls and others that Jonah was most familiar with. And as he looked, a soft glow swept through him like the first stage of intoxication. Sometimes at the barber’s a similar hypnotic feeling had come over him, some electric current stirred by the brushing of his hair, when common sounds and movements struck on his nerves like music. Again his nerves vibrated tunefully, and he became aware that she was speaking.

"So sorry to have troubled you," she said, and prepared to go.

He felt he must keep her at any cost. "A foot like yours needs a special last shaped to the foot. I don’t make to order now, as a rule, but I’ll try wot I can do fer yer, if yer care to leave an order," he said. He spoke like one in a dream.

She looked at him with a peculiar, intense gaze. "I should prefer that, but I’m afraid they would be too expensive," she said.

"No, I can do them at the same price as Kling & Wessel’s," said Jonah.

Miss Giltinan started and looked sharply from Jonah to his customer. She knew that was impossible. And she looked with a frown at this woman who could make Jonah forget his business instincts for a minute. For she worshipped him in secret, grateful to him for lifting her out of the gutter, and regarded him as the arbiter of her destiny.

He went to the desk and found the sliding rule and tape. As he passed the tape round the stranger’s foot, he found that his hands were trembling. And as he knelt before her on one knee, the young woman studied, with a slight repugnance, the large head, wedged beneath the shoulders as if a giant’s hand had pressed it down, and the hump projecting behind, monstrous and inhuman. Suddenly Jonah looked up and met her eyes. She coloured faintly.

"Wot sort of fit do yer like?" he asked. His voice, usually sharp and nasal, was rather hoarse.

All her life she remembered that moment. The huge shop, glittering with varnish, mirrors, and brass rods, the penetrating odour of leather, the saleswoman silently copying the figures into the book, and the misshapen hunchback kneeling before her and looking up into her face with his restless grey eyes, grown suddenly steady, that asked one question and sought another. She frowned slightly, conscious of some strange and disagreeable sensation.

"I prefer them as tight as possible without hurting me," she replied nervously; "but I’m afraid I’m giving you too much trouble."

"Not a bit," replied Jonah, clearing his throat.

As he finished measuring, a small boy, dressed in a Fauntleroy velvet suit, with an enormous collar and a flap cap, ran noisily into the shop, dragging a toy train at his heels.

"Get upstairs at once, Ray," said Jonah, without looking round.

The child, puffing and snorting like an engine, took no notice of the command.

"Did yez ’ear me speak?" cried Jonah, angrily.

The child laughed, and stopped with his train in front of the customer, staring at her with unabashed eyes.

"What a pretty boy!" said the young woman. "Won’t you tell me your name?"

"My name’s Ray Jones, and I’ll make old bones," he cried, with the glibness of a parrot.

The young woman laughed, and Jonah’s face changed instantly. It wore the adoring gaze of the fond parent, who thinks his child is a marvel and a prodigy.

"Tell the lady ’ow old yer are," he said.

"I’m seven and a bit old-fashioned," cried the child, looking into the customer’s face for the amused look that always followed the words. The young woman smiled pleasantly as she laced her shoe.

"’E’s as sharp as a needle," said Jonah, with a proud look, "but I ’aven’t put ’im to school yet, ’cause ’e’ll get enough schooling later on. But I’ll ’ave ter do somethin’ with ’im soon; ’e’s up ter ’is neck in mischief. I wish ’e was old enough ter learn the piano. ’E’s got a wonderful ear fer music."

"But he is old enough," said the young woman with a sudden interest. "I have two pupils the same age as he."

"Ah?" said Jonah, inquiringly.

"I am a teacher of music," continued the young woman, "and in my opinion, they can’t start too early, if they have any gift."

"An’ ’ow would yer judge that?" said Jonah, delighted at the turn of the conversation.

"I generally go by the width of the forehead at the temples. Phrenologists always look for that, and I have never found it fail. Come here," she said to the child, in a sharp, businesslike tone. She passed her hand over his forehead, and pointed out to Jonah a fullness over the corner of the eye. "That is the bump of music. You have it yourself," she said, suddenly looking at Jonah’s face. "I’m sure you’re fond of music. Do you sing or play?"

"I can do a bit with the mouth-organ," said Jonah, off his guard. He turned red with shame at this vulgar admission but the young woman only smiled.

"Well, about the boy," said Jonah, anxious to change the subject, "I’d like yer to take ’im in ’and, if yer could make anythin’ of ’im."

"I should be very pleased," said the young woman.

"Very well, we’ll talk it over on Thursday, when yer come fer yer shoes," said Jonah, feeling that he was making an appointment with this fascinating stranger.

As she left the shop she handed Jonah a card, on which was printed:

MISS CLARA GRIMES, TEACHER OF MUSIC. Terms: 1 pound 1 shilling per quarter.

"Well, I’m damned!" said Jonah. "Old Grimes’s daughter, of course." And as he watched her crossing the street with a quick, alert step, an intense yearning and loneliness came over him. Something within him contracted till it hurt. And suddenly there flashed across his mind some half-forgotten words of Mrs Yabsley’s:

"Don’t think of marryin’ till yer feel there’s somethin’ wrong wi’ yer inside, for that’s w’ere it ketches yer."

He sighed heavily, and went into the shop, preoccupied and silent for that day.

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Chicago: Louis Stone, "Chapter 12 the Sign of the Silver Shoe," Jonah, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Curtin, Jeremiah, 1835-1906 in Jonah Original Sources, accessed July 2, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BMSUTC11Y38SSK5.

MLA: Stone, Louis. "Chapter 12 the Sign of the "Silver Shoe"." Jonah, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Curtin, Jeremiah, 1835-1906, in Jonah, Original Sources. 2 Jul. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BMSUTC11Y38SSK5.

Harvard: Stone, L, 'Chapter 12 the Sign of the "Silver Shoe"' in Jonah, ed. and trans. . cited in 1911, Jonah. Original Sources, retrieved 2 July 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BMSUTC11Y38SSK5.