pippi considered betty's question about "pickings" and took a sip of her cocoa before replying.
"i don't know how many souls i've shown the light. not as many as i might have." she looked at gwendolyn over the rim of her cup as she said this.
betty laughed. "that's great, kiddo. i mean that's too bad. i was talking about stuff you can take to the bank. or to mose."
mose? gwendoyn was immediately attentive. surely, she thought, they must be talking about mr golden, the nice man who owned the pawn shop on morton street.
"no, i haven't found much lately," pippi told betty. she dropped her eyes from gwendolyn.
"might you," gwendolyn asked boldly, "be referring to mr golden, who operates old reliable loans over on morton street?"
"yeah, we were," betty answered. she did not seem too surprised by the question. "sometimes we find stuff in the street, you know? because we keep our ears to the ground and our eyes on the sparrow. you know how it is, here in the big city."
"oh, yes," said gwendolyn, "i too, often find things that can be redeemed for a little ready money. and without even looking. it is amazing what people throw away."
"i think, " said pippi, "that the lord sometimes guides them in throwing things away, that his servants may make good use of them to spread his word."
"right," betty agreed. "speaking of good use, i could use a quarter if you got one to spare. or even a lousy dime."
"uh -" pippi looked at gwendolyn. "somebody might have."
"oh, i have a quarter i can spare, " said gwendolyn. she still had change from the two dollar bill she had given louise and she took a quarter out of her purse and dropped into betty's palm.
"hey thanks, kid," said betty. "you're people. i seen you in here before, right? usually at night. "
"i believe we've spoken before. may i ask a question? of either of you?"
"shoot," betty replied. pippi just stared at gwendolyn.
"do you know of any other establishments nearby like mr golden's - that give such courteous service? i know there is one at bleecker and carmine, but i thought the man there was a bit nasty."
betty laughed. "ha ha, you mean joe? he's not exactly the queen of the may or the prince of wales, but he'll give a good deal to regular customers."
"i did not care for his attitude," gwendolyn repeated.
"you could try larry's on the bowery."
"is 'larry's' the name of the establishment ?"
"no. it's called happy loans or something like that - "
"friendly loans," said pippi.
"whatever," betty continued, "you can't miss it, it's right around the corner from bleecker, on the left."
"thank you so much."
"no, thank you." betty tossed the quarter gwendolyn had given her into the air and caught it, and moved away to the machines.
"so," said pippi to gwendolyn, " you find a lot of stuff in the street, huh?"
"occasionally. but more often auntie margaret or her friends are just throwing things away, and i tell them, oh no, let me see what i can get for it, so they let me have it."
"ah. it's nice to have friends like that. who just give you things."
"yes, i find it so. and i enjoying bargaining with the men in the shops. so long as they act like gentlemen, of course. it's ever so much fun."
"of course. nobody likes to deal with riffraff. " pippi took another sip of her cocoa.
"you know," said gwendolyn, "there was one thing mister nolan said to you, that i thought was particularly obnoxious. "
"mm. what was that?"
"his suggestion that you wanted to get into people's rooms so that you could steal things - i thought that was a terrible thing to even think."
"yes," pippi replied. "but do you know, when you are out and about doing the lord's work, people will say even much worse things to you."
"oh?" said gwendolyn, "like what?'
"things a young lady who goes to miss churchill's school for girls wouldn't even know about."
gwendolyn flushed a little. "i know all sorts of things. i have been to london and paris, you know. and berlin. and once even to vienna."
"right. well, let's talk about something else. something not so nasty."
"very well." gwendolyn was disappointed that pippi had not taken her bait about going into the rooms. "what would you like to talk about?"
"something you seem interested in - money."
gwendolyn flushed again. "there's nothing wrong with money."
"no, there isn't. so how would you like to help me make a little money? and do the lord's work at the same time?"
gwendolyn had no idea where the conversation was going. "perhaps," she answered, after taking a sip of her orange juice. "what exactly are you suggesting?"
"sometimes i go over to the parks - usually washington square but i go all over - and i do a little preaching." pippi looked steadily at gwendolyn. "and people who are moved give me a little money to continue my good work."
"but - i can't - that doesn't sound like anything i could do- , " gwendolyn stammered.
"i'm not asking you to preach. just collect the money while i do. it goes better if one person preaches and another collects. then the preacher can get up a good head of steam and not be interrupted. "
"yes - i can see that."
"the socialists and anarchists and communists do the same thing."
"i am sure."
"so how about it? you want to help me?"
"um -." this was so unexpected that gwendolyn felt her head spin. what would auntie margaret or pierre or serge think? or say? they all made fun of religion if they talked about it at all which they hardly ever did.
and the girls at miss churchill's school - what if any of them saw her? or one of the teachers? like miss cromwerth, the history and english teacher who was so elegant, and so sarcastic?
but - maybe there was some real money in it? she would never know if she didn't try.
pippi was staring at her, waiting for an answer.
"i'll - i'll give it a go," gwendolyn heard herself say. "why not?"
"good. can you shake a tambourine?"
"uh - i don't think i ever have."
"it's not hard."
"then i'll give that a go, too," said gwendolyn. in for a penny, in for a pound, she thought.
"all right," said pippi. she looked out the window. "it looks like the sun might come out. preaching always goes better when the sun shines." she turned back to gwendolyn. "there's no rush. you can finish your cheesecake."
"we'll stop at my place on the way over and pick up some stuff." when gwendolyn looked blank, pippi added, "like the tambourine. and a bible."
"oh, of course."
how strange this was, thought gwendolyn. stranger than any dream. well, maybe she would learn something. you could always learn something from new experiences, right? maybe she would learn something that auntie margaret or serge or pierre did not know. or that even miss cromwerth did not know.
she finished her cheesecake and orange juice, taking her time.
the girl was at the change counter, with her back to gwendolyn.
louise, the usual morning to mid-afternoon change person, was on duty. and in her usual grumpy manner, she seemed to be giving the girl a hard time. apparently about providing her with a glass for water.
"are you sure you are going to buy something?," louise was saying. she seemed to be glaring, though you could not really tell because her glasses were so thick.
"yes, ma'am", the girl, pippi or sippi or whatever her name was, replied politely. she held out her hand showing louise the change in it. "i am going to buy a cream puff. i promise."
"hmph." louise reached under the counter and produced a glass which she handed to the girl.
if louise had spoken to gwendolyn in such a manner, gwendolyn would have stood there and carefully inspected the glass to see if it were clean.
but pippi or sippi just took it and turned away toward the tables. as she did so, she noticed gwendolyn and gave a slight start.
gwendolyn smiled at her, not too broadly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for them to bump into each other. the girl stared at her for a second without speaking and moved away with the glass in one hand and her pamphlets in the other.
"and don't be bothering people trying to hand them stuff," louise called after the girl.
gwendolyn stepped up to the counter.
"i suppose you want some water too," louise grumbled to her. what a stupid thing to say! gwendolyn hardly ever asked for water, and usually bought herself hot cocoa or orange juice. but that was the way adults were - so rude.
american adults, that is. pierre and serge were always polite, being europeans. and so was auntie margaret, who considered herself a european even though she was from st louis missouri.
gwendolyn secretly thought of herself as a european too, although she would never say so out loud.
"no thank you," gwendolyn answered louise evenly. "i just need change." and she handed her a two dollar bill.
gwendolyn very much preferred the automat at night, when, besides that the place looked so much nicer out of the harsh daylight, the change counter was usually staffed by her friend polly.
polly in some ways did not seem that much older than gwendolyn, although she must have been at least twelve years older. she told gwendolyn she was writing a novel, and she and gwendolyn had nice conversations about books, and the theater and movies too. sometimes they disagreed, especially about george eliot.
the last time they had talked, polly had mentioned henry james and george meredith, and then added, "but maybe you are too young for them." naturally, gwendolyn had resolved to read them, but had not yet done so. so maybe it was just as well polly was not on duty now.
now gwendolyn took the change she had received from louise and got a tray and bought an orange juice. sometimes the orange juices in the vending machines were a little too warm, but she sipped it and it was all right.
a fat man wearing a bowler hat was taking up the space in front of the cheese cakes making a careful selection, and gwendolyn waited behind him.
she saw that pippi or sippi had taken a seat by herself at one the small two person tables. excellent! things were going according to plan.
when she finally got her cheese cake she took it and the orange juice and approached the girl, who was staring a little forlornly at her cream puff and glass of water.
"hello. do you might if i sit here?"
the girl looked up. "it's a public place."
"i know it's a public place, but do you mind if i sit here? i would not want to intrude."
"make yourself comfortable. then you can tell me why you are following me."
gwendolyn gave a polite little laugh as she put her tray down on the table. "i just wanted to apologize for the way mister nolan spoke to you. and assure you that all the people who live in the hotel are not so rude." she pulled the chair away from the table and sat down.
"do you own the hotel?" the girl asked.
"ha ha. no, but i live there, with my auntie. and you know, in some ways the hotel is like my family. and one does not want one's family to embarrass one."
"mm. i guess not." the girl stared at gwendolyn. "you went to hoffman."
"of course. i recognized you too. but i apologize for not remembering your name."
gwendolyn knew it was something like that, so she did not wince visibly. "of course. my name is gwendolyn. gwendolyn parker."
"mm. would you like to hear the good news, gwendolyn?"
"would you like one of these?" the girl took a pamphlet off the top of the stack she had on the table and offered it to gwendolyn.
"why, thank you. thank you so much." gwendolyn took the pamphlet. she glanced at it. it was printed on pale green paper, with the words on the front in darker green - "salvation is for everyone" , with "everyone" larger and even darker.
"would you like something else to drink - cocoa, or juice?" gwendolyn asked pippi. "that water does not look very nourishing."
pippi hesitated, but gwendolyn knew she would accept the offer. "why would you buy me some cocoa?"
"why, to make up for mister nolan's impoliteness, of course. and you have given me this nice little booklet."
gwendolyn slipped a quarter across the table and pippi took it. "the cocoa is off to the left, beside the change counter."
"yes, i've been here before." not even a thank you. what a rude little creature, thought gwendolyn. if i make her my protege, i shall have to teach her some manners.
pippi went to get her cocoa. gwendolyn took a few bites of her cheesecake and realized she was quite hungry. but she did not want to fill herself up with one of the automat's specials. if she could wait, perhaps pierre would make a nice lunch around three or four o'clock.
pippi returned with her cup of cocoa, sat down, and took a big gulp of it. at least she didn't slurp it, thought gwendolyn.
"so," said pippi, "you must be at bigelow now, huh?" she was referring to the nearby junior high school, the albert paine bigelow school.
"no," gwendolyn answered, "auntie got me enrolled at miss churchill's school for girls. it's her old school. it's over on bleecker street. it's one of those places you can walk by a hundred times and not know it's there."
"miss churchill's school for girls." pippi took a sip of her cocoa. she stared at gwendolyn. "you know what people called you at hoffman?"
"besides my name? no, i am afraid i do not know."
"they called you snooty pooty."
despite herself, gwendolyn could not help flushing slightly.
"i never did," pippi continued. "i don't call people names, especially behind their backs. it's not charitable. and the lord enjoins us to be charitable."
"i appreciate it," gwendolyn answered. she did not know what else to say.
suddenly someone was standing beside the table. "hey, kiddo, what's up?" gwendolyn heard a rough voice.
both girls looked up. "not much, betty," pippi answered, as it was she who had been spoken to.
betty was a raggedy woman who was one of the regulars at the automat - she and her cat were probably in there more than any other living creatures.
gwendolyn had seen her often, and had even talked to her. though without much enthusiasm, as she did not seem a person from whom one could learn much of any use.
"so how have you been? has the lord been with you?" pippi asked betty.
gwendolyn did not have to go to school, or beg off going to school.
the lobby of the venerable hotel st crispian was quiet and empty, as it often was on saturday morning. grownups, even those like auntie margaret and her friends serge and pierre who did not have "jobs", often slept later on saturday after staying out later than usual on friday night.
serge had not even shown up at the apartment for his usual morning coffee and perusal of the newspaper.
in fact the only other people in the lobby were the day desk clerk james - a particularly nondescript fellow who knew his place and never made familiar comments, at least not to the regular guests -
and the house detective mister nolan, sitting like an ugly old toad in his usual chair on the other side of the lobby. he looked like he might be asleep, but gwendolyn knew that he almost certainly was not.
but gwendolyn was content. the book she had brought down to the lobby with her - no name, by mister wilkie collins - was quite the best she had ever read, and she became quite engrossed in it, and virtually oblivious to her surroundings.
eventually her attention was diverted by the growling voice of mister nolan, quite distinct from across the lobby.
"you again! what did i tell you when i caught you in here before? hey?"
gwendolyn looked up. she did a double take.
for she recognized the person mister nolan was standing over.
it was a small girl she recognized from school - she had never seen a schoolmate in the hotel before, and the sight was, for a moment, somewhat dreamlike and disconcerting.
the girl had been in the fifth grade the year before, when gwendolyn had been in the sixth grade at the john t hoffman public grammar school. (gwendolyn was now in the seventh grade at miss churchill's school for girls, auntie margaret's old school)
so she was presumably a year younger than gwendolyn, and very small for her age. she was immediately recognizable by two long braids that hung all the way down her back. what was her name? pippi, tippi, sippi - something uncouth like that.
now she was saying in a surprisingly loud voice to nolan - "sir! america was founded on the principle of religious freedom! i have a constitutional right to spread the light of the gospel!"
now gwendolyn noticed that the girl had a stack of pamphlets - with sickly green covers - in her hand.
nolan gave a barking laugh. "well, missy, so now you are a lawyer as well as a preacher, hey?" he waved his unlit cigar at the girl. "that is quite a lot to pack into so small a frame, don't you think, james?"
james, who was leaning on the front desk listening to the conversation, just nodded with his wistful little smile.
the girl raised her voice again. "sir! consider the decision of the supreme court and judge felix frankfurter in the case of the west virginia state board of education vs barnette, in 1943, clearly upholding the principle of religious freedom!"
"oh, my," nolan replied. "well, i tell you what, missy, you go find judge felix frankfurter and bring him back here, and i will hear what he has to say, how does that sound?"
now the girl changed her tune. in a lower, little girl voice, she asked, "oh, please, sir, what is the harm? i just want to slip my pamphlets under the doors, i will not even knock on them. if people don't want to read them, they can just toss them away, so where is the harm? "
"the harm, miss, is that we can't have people wandering the halls night and day knocking on doors and shoving things under them. the tenants - even the more easygoing ones - and some of them are far from easygoing - do not take kindly to such proceedings." nolan smiled. "as i believe i explained to you before."
"oh, sir, just this once - since i am already here." the girl sniffled, as if she were about to start crying.
"no. i will tell you something else - the real reason the tenants, and the owners of the hotel do not want such activity going on."
"and what is that, sir?"
"that they think the people who do such things are actually looking for open doors so that they can sneak into them and rob the rooms."
"oh! that's terrible!" the girl exclaimed.
"yes" nolan continued, "it's a suspicious world, missy, and not everyone in it is filled with the light of charity."
"all the more reason, then, for their hardened souls to be reached out to."
at this point, gwendolyn, who had been listening to the whole conversation, was beginning to be impressed by pippi or tippi's tenacity. could she have stood up to mister nolan so boldly herself?
"no," nolan answered emphatically. "so i'll thank you to be on your way."
"at least you can take one of my booklets yourself." the girl held one out to nolan. "if you don't want the souls of the other people in the hotel to be saved , perhaps you might like to save your own."
nolan laughed, a real laugh. "ha, ha! you know, missy, i've had women saving my soul my whole life. first it was my mother and my aunts and my sisters.
then it was the nuns in school. and then my wife and her sisters and my daughters. all saving my soul from the day i was born. so i say to you, welcome to the congregation." but he took the pamphlet.
with a final glance at him, the girl turned and headed for the door.
"and don't let me catch you in here again!" nolan called after her.
the girl swerved away toward the front desk and offered one of the pamphlets to james the desk clerk, who took it with his insipid little smile.
and then she was out the door.
on an impulse, gwendolyn decided to follow her. as much as she was enjoying it, no name by wilkie collins could wait.
she got up and went up to the front desk and handed her book to james.
"could you please hold this for me until i get back?"
gwendolyn pushed through the front door.
she took a deep breath of fresh air. it almost never ceased to surprise her, just how stuffy the hotel was - you did not really notice it until you went outside.
it was quite a nice day. pleasantly warm, though slightly cloudy.
the girl with the pamphlets had taken a right, toward morton street.
gwendolyn had wondered how quickly she should follow her. or if she should try to catch up with her right away.
but the decision was made for her.
for after a slight hesitation, the girl went into the automat.
*Assistant Professor of Populist Literature, Olney Community College; editor of “Men Are for the Taking”: The “Gwendolyn and Auntie Margaret” Stories of Horace P. Sternwall, Vol. 2; the Olney Community College Press.
The old lady had a handbag on her lap, a large cloth one with a faded floral pattern. She unsnapped its clasp and opened it up. Standing right there in front of Miss Charlton, Gwendolyn couldn’t help but look into the interior of the bag, which looked like what you saw if you peeked into the trash basket in the ladies’ room off the lobby, except that the ladies’ room trash basket wasn’t swimming with crumpled up greenbacks mixed in liberally with all the other rubbish.
Miss Charlton fished around in the rubbish and selected a five-dollar bill.
“Here,” she said. “Take this. Put it in your little purse.”
This was a small dark shiny patent-leather purse that Auntie Margaret had given Gwendolyn on her tenth birthday, and in which Gwendolyn kept all the essentials she might need at any moment when she was out and about: a little folding money and some change, some transit tokens, Lifesavers, a Hershey’s bar, a handkerchief, a small leather refillable notebook with a mechanical pencil attached with a little chain, a comb, some hair clips and bobby pins, a steel ring with a set of several dozen keys which combined would open hundreds of different locks, and a Swiss army knife.
“This fiver is for you, because at least some children have learned the basics of common civility.”
“Thank you, Miss Charlton.”
Gwendolyn wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and so she took the crumpled and slightly greasy bill, opened up her purse, and shoved the bill into the secret compartment.
“What is your name again, dearie?” said the crone.
“Gwendolyn, Miss Charlton.”
“A pretty name. What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be rich, so that I can do whatever I want to do.”
“Very good answer. So you’re not like all these other empty-headed girls, wanting only to get married and breed a pack of mewling devil-spawn.”
“I don’t see the percentage in that,” said Gwendolyn.
“You don’t, do you?”
“My Auntie Margaret isn’t married. She says a husband is only a great millstone around a woman’s neck.”
“And what about your mother?”
“My mother is dead.”
“And your father?”
“I’m very sorry.”
“No need to be. My Auntie Margaret has brought me up and we’ve traveled to London and Paris and Rome and Berlin and we’ve had loads of fun.”
“Your Auntie Margaret sounds like quite a woman.”
“She is. She’s ever so much fun.”
“And she doesn’t need a man?”
“If she needs a man that’s what Pierre and Serge are for.”
“And who, may I ask, are Pierre and Serge?”
“They’re Auntie’s friends. They’re ever so nice and very clever.”
Miss Charlton paused.
Gwendolyn waited. She knew you had to be patient with old people.
How old was Miss Charlton, anyway? Fifty? Seventy? Who could tell under the pounds of make-up caked like mud on her wizened old face.
“How old are you, Guinevere?”
“Gwendolyn,” said Gwendolyn.
“Gwendolyn, sorry,” said Miss Charlton. “How old are you?”
“Twelve,” said Gwendolyn.
“You don’t look twelve.”
“I just turned last month, but I’m slightly small for my age.”
“Better to be small than some great tall gangling giraffe of a girl. I’m going to make a confession to you, Gwendolyn.”
Gwendolyn waited. That five-spot was burning a hole in her purse, but she knew there could be a lot more where that came from if she played her cards right with this crazy old bat.
Miss Charlton crooked her bony finger at Gwendolyn.
“Come closer, dear. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else in my life.”
Gwendolyn glanced over at Lord Wolverington, who still seemed deep in conversation with that Mr. Brown, the one everybody called “Farmer” Brown, although he sure didn’t look like a farmer to Gwendolyn.
She stepped closer to Miss Charlton. The old lady smelled of stale gardenias and stubbed-out cigarettes, of unfinished cocktails left on a coffee table overnight.
“That’s better, Evangeline,” said Miss Charlton. Her eyes were blue, the whites of them watery and bloodshot. Gwendolyn resisted the impulse to recoil in horror, especially when Miss Charlton touched her cheek with her skinny old fingers, two of which had stones in them that didn’t look like they had come from Woolworth’s.
“My confession to you is that I killed a man once,” said Miss Charlton. “Shot him right through the temple point-blank with his own revolver. It was one of those crimes of passion you hear about, but it could have been the chair for me if not for the only other person in the room at the time, namely that old poofter Wolverington over there. He may be only a bum boy, and a wastrel at that, but he proved himself to be a real regular Joe on that occasion, and thanks to him and to my excellent lawyer Mr. Perkins the death of this – this man – was ruled a suicide.”
She stopped talking, and Gwendolyn waited. Finally the old bat spoke again.
“So what do you think of my confession, Guinevere?”
Without a moment’s hesitation Gwendolyn replied.
“I think it sounds like that man was a rat and that he got just what he deserved, Miss Charlton.”
Miss Charlton paused again.
Gwendolyn could hear Lord Wolverington and Farmer Brown, murmuring, God knew what they had to talk about.
Finally Miss Charlton spoke.
“Forget about the tea and the bicarb, and go in the Prince Hal Room and ask the barman to make me one of my morning specials, he’ll know what it is. Just tell him to put it on Miss Charlton’s bill. Oh, and ask him for a pack of Pall Malls while you’re at it.”
“Yes, Miss Charlton.”
“Oh, wait, don’t go yet,” said Miss Charlton.
She opened her handbag again, rummaged in it, took out another crumpled five-dollar bill.
“This is for you, Virginia. Because you’re a good girl.”
“Thank you, Miss Charlton.”
Gwendolyn took the bill, opened her purse again, and put the fiver into the secret compartment with the first five.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
“Thank you, Gerty,” said Miss Charlton.
Gwendolyn started across the lobby toward the Prince Hal Room, ignoring the insolent gaze of the brutish-looking desk clerk.
Today was turning out to be not so dreary a day after all.