John Bull's First Job
By VIRGINIA COWLES
MY home was in Boston. When I was fifteen I returned from boarding school for the summer holidays and dismayed my mother by announc- ing that my studies had come to an end: I had `graduated.' ThiT prema- ,ipA9 ture event was not due
to my ability, but to the 'progressive ideas' of the headmistress. This good lady was so con- cerned with the complexes that her pupils might develop through anxiety and frustration that she had revised the curriculum and introduced 'the Dalton system.' This delightful innovation allowed students to abandon such tedious con- cerns as Latin and Maths and specialise in poetry, art, current events, graceful living or whatever else caught their fancy. Each girl could take as many subjects as she liked, and could demand to be examined whenever the mood struck her. Every successful test carried merit marks, and a given number of marks finally secured a diploma. Quick to see the opportunity of ridding myself of school for ever, I had undertaken a prodigious number of inconsequential subjects and, much to the annoyance of my teachers, had acquired sufficient marks to say farewell.
My mother was exasperated. What on earth was she to do with me? Art school, languages, a secretarial course? I said no to every sugges- tion, insisting that I was poised to embark on a career. Just what career, however, required some thought and I hoped 1 would not be hurried into making an unwise decision. So the days slipped by. I arose from my bed later and later each morning and idled away the afternoons in an endless procession of movies. Finally, my mother could stand it no longer. At the end of two months she told me that if I had not found a vocation by the end of the week I would be sent to secretarial school.
This ultimatum set me poring over the 'help wanted' columns. At the end of the week I was triumphant. I had acquired a job in an antique shop owned and run by two middle-aged Jewish gentlemen who wanted someone to attend to the customers while they were out buying. `Do you know anything about antiques?' snapped the bald one, Mr. A. 'A little.' You mean, no,' interposed the short one, Mr. B, with unmis- takable satisfaction. 'Well, we don't pay big for ignorance. You'll get eight dollars a week.'
The shop was very dark. Tables, chairs, stools and commodes were piled on top of each other in a wild jumble. On every surface there were china jugs and basins, stuffed birds, odd cups,and fire pokers. It clearly was a junk shop, not an antique shop. Downstairs there was a basement with even more furniture, most of it in a sad state of disrepair.
My employers rarely spoke to me. I sat on a stool at the end of the shop in almost total dark- ness. On the third day I equipped myself with a pocket flashlight so that I could read. During my first week not a single customer entered the shop and 1 wondered how Mr. A and Mr. B managed to make a living. On Saturday morning, however, business picked up and Mr. A made two revealing sales. By talking with passionate fervour about Colonial America he sold an old lady a rocking-chair riddled with worm for $27, and a young lady a silver-plated teapot with a huge dent for $18. So that was how it was done!
On Monday morning Mr. A and Mr. B went out to a sale. Almost all the goods, they said, were marked, but, of course, I was not to stick too closely to the price tags, but to strike the best bargain possible. They had not been gone for more than half an hour before a tall, im- maculately dressed man of about thirty entered the shop. `I'm only looking around.' he smiled. 'Mirrors are what I'm particularly interested in.' This was sad, for we were short of mirrors. Indeed, we did not appear to have any mirrors at all. I poked and peered behind the stacked chairs and commodes, then suddenly remembered the mirror in the basement; the one I had stumbled over and nearly broken. It was filthy, the frame was cracked and the back was coming away, but at least I could try. I ran downstairs and fetched it up. It was oval-shaped, with a gold frame and baubles. Six of the baubles were missing and the glass was ingrained with blemishes that looked like black soot, but were irremovable. 'How much is it?' asked my suave client. There was no price tag on it and I would not have given fifty cents for it myself, but I re- membered Mr. A's aggressive salesmanship. I took a deep breath and said, 'Thirty dollars.'
To my astonishment I heard the stranger reply. take it.' He pulled twenty dollars out of his wallet and laid them on a table. 'I hope you'll accept a cheque for the rest,' he added, 'as I'm catching the eleven o'clock train to Phila- delphia and I haven't time to go to the bank.' I nodded, although Mr. A had stated firmly that the policy of the shop was cash only. 1 read the signature with relief, for the name was Biddle. At least the cheque would not bounce, for the Biddies of Philadelphia were almost as respectable as the Cabots of Boston.
When my employers returned I told them proudly what I had done. 'She's crazy,' wailed Mr. B. 'Just plumb crazy. Who told you to go to the basement anyway?' Thirty dollars,' repeated Mr. A, holding his head in his hands and rolling his eyes in despair. 'Thirty dollars for a genu-wine Adams mirror. Oh God, give me patience!' Then they both turned on me together. 'It was worth one hundred and thirty. Do you hear that? One hundred and thirty. So if you don't get it back, we'll dock it from your pay each week.'
1 went to the Western Union Office and sent a telegram, addressed to: 'BIDDLE, ELEVEN O'CLOCK TRAIN BOSTON 10 PHILADELPHIA.' I explained my mistake and said that although he was under no obligation to return the mirror I would be greatly' relieved if he felt inclined to do so. At three o'clock in the afternoon the answer came. The charming Mr. Biddle agreed to send back the mirror and sympathised with me deeply in my 'awkward situation.'
Mr. A and Mr. B had sceptical natures and refused to rejoice until the mirror actually ' arrived. Four days later it was back in the shop. They stripped off the wrappings and examined it carefully, stroking it with tender solicitude. 'And now,' said Mr. A, turning to me and smiling broadly for the first time since I had walked into the shop eleven days earlier, 'you're fired.' My first job was a thing of the past.