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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHugo: A Fantasia On Modern Themes - Part 1. The Sealed Rooms - Chapter 2. The Establishment
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Hugo: A Fantasia On Modern Themes - Part 1. The Sealed Rooms - Chapter 2. The Establishment Post by :rbussey Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1981

Click below to download : Hugo: A Fantasia On Modern Themes - Part 1. The Sealed Rooms - Chapter 2. The Establishment (Format : PDF)

Hugo: A Fantasia On Modern Themes - Part 1. The Sealed Rooms - Chapter 2. The Establishment

PART I. THE SEALED ROOMS
CHAPTER II. THE ESTABLISHMENT

Seven years before, when, having unostentatiously acquired the necessary land, and an acre or two over, Hugo determined to rebuild his premises and to burst into full blossom, he visited America and Paris, and amongst other establishments inspected Wanamaker's, the Bon Marche, and the Magasins du Louvre. The result disappointed him. He had expected to pick up ideas, but he picked up nothing save the Bon Marche system of vouchers, by which a customer buying in several departments is spared the trouble of paying separately in each department. He came to the conclusion that the art of flinging money away in order that it may return tenfold was yet quite in its infancy. He said to himself, 'I will build a _shop_.'

Travelling home by an indirect route, he stopped at a busy English seaport, and saw a great town-hall majestically rising in the midst of a park. The beautiful building did not appeal to him in vain. At the gates of the park he encountered a youth, who was staring at the town-hall with a fixed and fascinated stare.

'A fine structure,' Hugo commented to the youth.

'_I think so,' was the reply.

'Can you tell me who is the architect?' asked Hugo.

'I am,' said the youth. 'And let me beg of you not to make any remark on my juvenile appearance. I am sick of that.'

They lunched together, and Hugo learnt that the genius, after several years spent in designing the varnished interiors of public-houses, had suddenly come out first in an open competition for the town-hall; thenceforward he had thought in town-halls.

'I want a shop putting up,' said Hugo.

The youth showed no interest.

'And when I say a shop,' Hugo pursued, 'I mean a _shop_.'

'Oh, a _shop you mean!' ejaculated the youth, faintly stirred. They both spoke in italics.

'A _real shop. Sloane Street. A hundred and eighty thousand superficial feet. Cost a quarter of a million. The finest shop in the world!'

The youth started to his feet.

'I've never had any luck,' said he, gazing at Hugo. 'But I believe you really do understand what a shop ought to be.'

'I believe I do,' Hugo concurred. 'And I want one.'

'You shall have it!' said the youth.

And Hugo had it, though not for anything like the sum he had named.

The four frontages of his land exceeded in all a quarter of a mile. The frontage to Sloane Street alone was five hundred feet. It was this glorious stretch of expensive earth which inflamed the architect's imagination.

'But we must set back the facade twenty feet at least,' he said; and added, 'That will give you a good pavement.'

'Young man,' cried Hugo, 'do you know how much this land has stood me in a foot?'

'I neither know nor care,' answered the youth. 'All I say is, what's the use of putting up a decent building unless people can see it?'

Hugo yielded. He felt as though, having given the genius something to play with, he must not spoil the game. The game included twelve thousand pounds paid to budding sculptors for monumental groups of a symbolic tendency; it included forests of onyx pillars and pillars of Carrara marble; it included ceilings painted by artists who ought to have been R.A.'s, but were not; and it included a central court of vast dimensions and many fountains, whose sole purpose was to charm the eye and lure the feet of customers who wanted a rest from spending money. Whenever Hugo found the game over-exciting, he soothed himself by dwelling upon the wonderful plan which the artist had produced, of his extraordinary grasp of practical needs, and his masterly solution of the various complicated problems which continually presented themselves.

After the last bit of scaffolding was removed and the machine in full working order, Hugo beheld it, and said emphatically, 'This will do.'

All London stood amazed, but not at the austere beauty of the whole, for only a few connoisseurs could appreciate that. What amazed London was the fabulous richness, the absurd spaciousness, the extravagant perfection of every part of the immense organism.

You could stroll across twenty feet of private tessellated pavement, enter jewelled portals with the assistance of jewelled commissionaires, traverse furlong after furlong of vistas where nought but man was vile, sojourn by the way in the concert-hall, the reading-room, or the picture-gallery, smoke a cigarette in the court of fountains, write a letter in the lounge, and finally ask to be directed to the stationery department, where seated on a specially designed chair and surrounded by the most precious manifestations of applied art, you could select a threepenny box of J pens, and have it sent home in a pair-horse van.

The unobservant visitor wondered how Hugo made it pay. The observant visitor did not fail to note that there were more than a hundred cash-desks in the place, and that all the cashiers had the air of being overworked. Once the entire army of cashiers, driven to defensive action, had combined in order to demand from Hugo, not only higher pay, but an increase in their numbers. Hugo had immediately consented, expressing regret that their desperate plight had escaped his attention.

The registered telegraphic address of the establishment was 'Complete, London.'

This address indicated the ideal which Hugo had turned into a reality. His imperial palace was far more than a universal bazaar. He boasted that you could do everything there, except get into debt. (His dictionary was an expurgated edition, and did not contain the word 'credit.') Throughout life's fitful fever Hugo undertook to meet all your demands. Your mother could buy your layette from him, and your cradle, soothing-syrup, perambulator, and toys; she could hire your nurse at Hugo's. Your school-master could purchase canes there. Hugo sold the material for every known game; also sweets, cigarettes, penknives, walking-sticks, moustache-forcers, neckties, and trouser-stretchers. He shaved you, and kept the latest in scents and kit-bags. He was unsurpassed for fishing-rods, motor-cars, Swinburne's poems, button-holes, elaborate bouquets, fans, and photographs. His restaurant was full of discreet corners with tables for two under rose-shaded lights. He booked seats for theatres, trains, steamers, grand-stands, and the Empire. He dealt in all stocks and shares. He was a banker. He acted as agent for all insurance companies. He would insert advertisements in the agony column, or any other column, of any newspaper. If you wanted a flat, a house, a shooting-box, a castle, a yacht, or a salmon river, Hugo could sell, or Hugo could let, the very thing. He provided strong-rooms for your savings, and summer quarters for your wife's furs; conjurers to amuse your guests after dinner, and all the requisites for your daughter's wedding, from the cake and the silk petticoats to the Viennese band. His wine-cellars and his specific for the gout were alike famous; so also was his hair-dye.... And, lastly, when the riddle of existence had become too much for your curiosity, Hugo would sell you a pistol by means of which you could solve it. And he would bury you in a manner first-class, second-class, or third-class, according to your deserts.

And all these feats Hugo managed to organize within the compass of four floors, a basement, and a sub-basement. Above, were five floors of furnished and unfurnished flats. 'Will people of wealth consent to live over a shop?' he had asked himself in considering the possibilities of his palace, and he had replied, 'Yes, if the shop is large enough and the rents are high enough.' He was right. His flats were the most sumptuous and the most preposterously expensive in London; and they were never tenantless. One man paid two thousand a year for a furnished suite. But what a furnished suite! The flats had a separate and spectacular entrance on the eastern facade of the building, with a foyer that was always brilliantly lighted, and elevators that rose and sank without intermission day or night. And on the ninth floor was a special restaurant, with prices to match the rents, and a roof garden, where one of Hugo's orchestras played every fine summer evening, except Sundays. (The County Council, mistrusting this aerial combination of music and moonbeams, had granted its license only on the condition that customers should have one night in which to recover from the doubtful influences of the other six.) The restaurant and the roof-garden were a resort excessively fashionable during the season. The garden gave an excellent view of the dome, where Hugo lived. But few persons knew that he lived there; in some matters he was very secretive.

That very sultry morning Hugo brooded over the face of his establishment like a spirit doomed to perpetual motion. For more than two hours he threaded ceaselessly the long galleries where the usual daily crowds of customers, sales-people, shopwalkers, inspectors, sub-managers, managers, and private detectives of both sexes, moved with a strange and unaccustomed languor in a drowsy atmosphere which no system of ventilation could keep below 75 deg. Fahrenheit. None but the chiefs of departments had the right to address him as he passed; such was the rule. He deviated into the counting-house, where two hundred typewriters made their music, and into the annexe containing the stables and coach-houses, where scores of vans and automobiles, and those elegant coupes gratuitously provided by Hugo for the use of important clients, were continually arriving and leaving. Then he returned to the purchasing multitudes, and plunged therein as into a sea. At intervals a customer, recognising him, would nudge a friend, and point eagerly.

'That's Hugo. See him, in the gray suit?'

'What? That chap?'

And they would both probably remark at lunch: 'I saw Hugo himself to-day at Hugo's.'

He took an oath in his secret heart that he would not go near Department 42, the only department which had the slightest interest for him. He knew that he could not be too discreet. And yet eventually, without knowing how or why, he perceived of a sudden that his legs carried him thither. He stopped, at a loss what to do, and then, by the direct interposition of kindly Fate, a manager spoke to him.... He gazed out of the corner of his eye. Yes, she was there. He could see her through a half-drawn portiere in one of the trying-on rooms. She was sitting limp on a chair, overcome by the tropic warmth of Sloane Street, with her noble head thrown back, her fine eyes half shut, and her beautiful hands lying slackly on her black apron.

What an impeachment of civilization that a creature so fair and so divine should be forced to such a martyrdom! He desired ardently to run to her and to set her free for the day, for the whole summer, and on full wages. He wondered if he could trust the manager with instructions to alleviate her lot.... The next instant she sprang up, giving the indispensable smile of welcome to some customer who had evidently entered the trying-on room from the other side. The phenomenon distressed him. She disappeared from view behind the portiere, and reappeared, but only for a moment, talking to a foppish old man with a white moustache. It was Senior Polycarp, the lawyer.

Hugo flushed, and, abandoning the manager in the middle of a sentence, fled to his central office. He had no confidence in his self-command.... Could this be jealousy? Was it possible that he, Hugo, should be so far gone? Nay!

But what was Polycarp, that old and desiccated widower, doing in the millinery department?

He said he must form some definite plan, and begin by giving her a private room.

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