‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Are you quite sure?’
‘Well, the fact is they’re advertising for a shop-walker tomorrow,’ said Athelny, looking at him doubtfully through his glasses.
‘D’you think I stand any chance of getting it?’
Athelny was a little confused; he had led Philip to expect something much more splendid; on the other hand he was too poor to go on providing him indefinitely with board and lodging.
‘You might take it while you wait for something better. You always stand a better chance if you’re engaged by the firm already.’
‘I’m not proud, you, know’ smiled Philip.
‘If you decide on that you must be there at a quarter to nine tomorrow morning.’
Notwithstanding the war there was evidently much difficulty in finding work, for when Philip went to the shop many men were waiting already. He recognised some whom he had seen in his own searching, and there was one whom he had noticed lying about the park in the afternoon. To Philip now that suggested that he was as homeless as himself and passed the night out of doors. The men were of all sorts, old and young, tall and short; but every one had tried to make himself smart for the interview with the manager: they had carefully brushed hair and scrupulously clean hands. They waited in a passage which Philip learnt afterwards led up to the dining-hall and the work rooms; it was broken every few yards by five or six steps. Though there was electric light in the shop here was only gas, with wire cages over it for protection, and it flared noisily. Philip arrived punctually, but it was nearly ten o’clock when he was admitted into the office. It was three-cornered, like a cut of cheese lying on its side: on the walls were pictures of women in corsets, and two poster-proofs, one of a man in pyjamas, green and white in large stripes, and the other of a ship in full sail ploughing an azure sea: on the sail was printed in large letters ‘great white sale.’ The widest side of the office was the back of one of the shop-windows, which was being dressed at the time, and an assistant went to and fro during the interview. The manager was reading a letter. He was a florid man, with sandy hair and a large sandy moustache; from the middle of his watch-chain hung a bunch of football medals. He sat in his shirt sleeves at a large desk with a telephone by his side; before him were the day’s advertisements, Athelny’s work, and cuttings from newspapers pasted on a card. He gave Philip a glance but did not speak to him; he dictated a letter to the typist, a girl who sat at a small table in one corner; then he asked Philip his name, age, and what experience he had had. He spoke with a cockney twang in a high, metallic voice which he seemed not able always to control; Philip noticed that his upper teeth were large and protruding; they gave you the impression that they were loose and would come out if you gave them a sharp tug.
‘I think Mr. Athelny has spoken to you about me,’ said Philip.
‘Oh, you are the young feller who did that poster?’
‘No good to us, you know, not a bit of good.’
He looked Philip up and down. He seemed to notice that Philip was in some way different from the men who had preceded him.
‘You’d ‘ave to get a frock coat, you know. I suppose you ‘aven’t got one. You seem a respectable young feller. I suppose you found art didn’t pay.’
Philip could not tell whether he meant to engage him or not. He threw remarks at him in a hostile way.
‘Where’s your home?’
‘My father and mother died when I was a child.’
‘I like to give young fellers a chance. Many’s the one I’ve given their chance to and they’re managers of departments now. And they’re grateful to me, I’ll say that for them. They know what I done for them. Start at the bottom of the ladder, that’s the only way to learn the business, and then if you stick to it there’s no knowing what it can lead to. If you suit, one of these days you may find yourself in a position like what mine is. Bear that in mind, young feller.’
‘I’m very anxious to do my best, sir,’ said Philip.
He knew that he must put in the sir whenever he could, but it sounded odd to him, and he was afraid of overdoing it. The manager liked talking. It gave him a happy consciousness of his own importance, and he did not give Philip his decision till he had used a great many words.
‘Well, I daresay you’ll do,’ he said at last, in a pompous way. ‘Anyhow I don’t mind giving you a trial.’
‘Thank you very much, sir.’
‘You can start at once. I’ll give you six shillings a week and your keep. Everything found, you know; the six shillings is only pocket money, to do what you like with, paid monthly. Start on Monday. I suppose you’ve got no cause of complaint with that.’
‘Harrington Street, d’you know where that is, Shaftesbury Avenue. That’s where you sleep. Number ten, it is. You can sleep there on Sunday night, if you like; that’s just as you please, or you can send your box there on Monday.’ The manager nodded: ‘Good-morning.’