Note: Best known today as the author of “The Forsyte Saga,” John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was a popular and prolific English novelist and playwright in the early decades of the 20th century.
In the narrative essay “Quality,” originally published in 1912, Galsworthy depicts a German craftsman’s efforts to survive in an era where success is determined “by adverdisement, nod by work.”
I knew him from the days of my extreme youth, because he made my father’s boots; inhabiting with his elder brother two little shops let into one, in a small by-street-now no more, but then most fashionably placed in the West End.
That tenement had a certain quiet distinction; there was no sign upon its face that he made for any of the Royal Family–merely his own German name of Gessler Brothers; and in the window a few pairs of boots. I remember that it always troubled me to account for those unvarying boots in the window, for he made only what was ordered, reaching nothing down, and it seemed so inconceivable that what he made could ever have failed to fit. Had he bought them to put there? That, too, seemed inconceivable. He would never have tolerated in his house leather on which he had not worked himself. Besides, they were too beautiful–the pair of pumps, so inexpressibly slim, the patent leathers with cloth tops, making water come into one’s mouth, the tall brown riding boots with marvelous sooty glow, as if, though new, they had been worn a hundred years. Those pairs could only have been made by one who saw before him the Soul of Boot–so truly were they prototypes incarnating the very spirit of all foot-gear. These thoughts, of course, came to me later, though even when I was promoted to him, at the age of perhaps fourteen, some inkling haunted me of the dignity of himself and brother. For to make boots–such boots as he made–seemed to me then, and still seems to me, mysterious and wonderful.
I remember well my shy remark, one day, while stretching out to him my youthful foot:
“Isn’t it awfully hard to do, Mr. Gessler?”
And his answer, given with a sudden smile from out of the sardonic redness of his beard: “Id is an Ardt!”
Himself, he was a little as if made from leather, with his yellow crinkly face, and crinkly reddish hair and beard; and neat folds slanting down his cheeks to the corners of his mouth, and his guttural and one-toned voice; for leather is a sardonic substance, and stiff and slow of purpose. And that was the character of his face, save that his eyes, which were grey-blue, had in them the simple gravity of one secretly possessed by the Ideal. His elder brother was so very like him–though watery, paler in every way, with a great industry–that sometimes in early days I was not quite sure of him until the interview was over.
Then I knew that it was he, if the words, “I will ask my brudder,” had not been spoken; and that, if they had, it was his elder brother.
When one grew old and wild and ran up bills, one somehow never ran them up with Gessler Brothers. It would not have seemed becoming to go in there and stretch out one’s foot to that blue iron-spectacled glance, owing him for more than–say–two pairs, just the comfortable reassurance that one was still his client.
For it was not possible to go to him very often–his boots lasted terribly, having something beyond the temporary–some, as it were, essence of boot stitched into them.
One went in, not as into most shops, in the mood of: “Please serve me, and let me go!” but restfully, as one enters a church; and, sitting on the single wooden chair, waited–for there was never anybody there. Soon, over the top edge of that sort of well–rather dark, and smelling soothingly of leather–which formed the shop, there would be seen his face, or that of his elder brother, peering down. A guttural sound, and the tip-tap of bast slippers beating the narrow wooden stairs, and he would stand before one without coat, a little bent, in leather apron, with sleeves turned back, blinking–as if awakened from some dream of boots, or like an owl surprised in daylight and annoyed at this interruption.
And I would say: “How do you do, Mr. Gessler? Could you make me a pair of Russia leather boots?”
Without a word he would leave me, retiring whence he came, or into the other portion of the shop, and I would, continue to rest in the wooden chair, inhaling the incense of his trade. Soon he would come back, holding in his thin, veined hand a piece of gold-brown leather. With eyes fixed on it, he would remark: “What a beaudiful biece!” When I, too, had admired it, he would speak again. “When do you wand dem?” And I would answer: “Oh! As soon as you conveniently can.” And he would say: “To-morrow fordnighd?” Or if he were his elder brother: “I will ask my brudder!”
Then I would murmur: “Thank you! Good-morning, Mr. Gessler.”
“Goot-morning!” he would reply, still looking at the leather in his hand. And as I moved to the door, I would hear the tip-tap of his bast slippers restoring him, up the stairs, to his dream of boots. But if it were some new kind of foot-gear that he had not yet made me, then indeed he would observe ceremony–divesting me of my boot and holding it long in his hand, looking at it with eyes at once critical and loving, as if recalling the glow with which he had created it, and rebuking the way in which one had disorganized this masterpiece. Then, placing my foot on a piece of paper, he would two or three times tickle the outer edges with a pencil and pass his nervous fingers over my toes, feeling himself into the heart of my requirements.
I cannot forget that day on which I had occasion to say to him; “Mr. Gessler, that last pair of town walking-boots creaked, you know.”
He looked at me for a time without replying, as if expecting me to withdraw or qualify the statement, then said:
“Id shouldn’d ‘ave greaked.”
“It did, I’m afraid.”
“You goddem wed before dey found demselves?”
“I don’t think so.”
At that he lowered his eyes, as if hunting for memory of those boots, and I felt sorry I had mentioned this grave thing.
“Zend dem back!” he said; “I will look at dem.”
A feeling of compassion for my creaking boots surged up in me, so well could I imagine the sorrowful long curiosity of regard which he would bend on them.
“Zome boods,” he said slowly, “are bad from birdt. If I can do noding wid dem, I dake dem off your bill.”
Once (once only) I went absent-mindedly into his shop in a pair of boots bought in an emergency at some large firm’s. He took my order without showing me any leather, and I could feel his eyes penetrating the inferior integument of my foot. At last he said:
“Dose are nod my boods.”
The tone was not one of anger, nor of sorrow, not even of contempt, but there was in it something quiet that froze the blood. He put his hand down and pressed a finger on the place where the left boot, endeavoring to be fashionable, was not quite comfortable.
“Id ‘urds you dere,”, he said. “Dose big virms ‘ave no self-respect. Drash!” And then, as if something had given way within him, he spoke long and bitterly. It was the only time I ever heard him discuss the conditions and hardships of his trade.
“Dey get id all,” he said, “dey get id by adverdisement, nod by work. Dey dake it away from us, who lofe our boods. Id gomes to this–bresently I haf no work. Every year id gets less you will see.” And looking at his lined face I saw things I had never noticed before, bitter things and bitter struggle–and what a lot of grey hairs there seemed suddenly in his red beard!
As best I could, I explained the circumstances of the purchase of those ill-omened boots. But his face and voice made so deep impression that during the next few minutes I ordered many pairs. Nemesis fell! They lasted more terribly than ever. And I was not able conscientiously to go to him for nearly two years.
When at last I went I was surprised to find that outside one of the two little windows of his shop another name was painted, also that of a bootmaker-making, of course, for the Royal Family. The old familiar boots, no longer in dignified isolation, were huddled in the single window. Inside, the now contracted well of the one little shop was more scented and darker than ever. And it was longer than usual, too, before a face peered down, and the tip-tap of the bast slippers began. At last he stood before me, and, gazing through those rusty iron spectacles, said:
“Mr.—–, isn’d it?”
“Ah! Mr. Gessler,” I stammered, “but your boots are really too good, you know! See, these are quite decent still!” And I stretched out to him my foot. He looked at it.
“Yes,” he said, “beople do nod wand good hoods, id seems.”
To get away from his reproachful eyes and voice I hastily remarked: “What have you done to your shop?”
He answered quietly: “Id was too exbensif. Do you wand some boods?”
I ordered three pairs, though I had only wanted two, and quickly left. I had, I do not know quite what feeling of being part, in his mind, of a conspiracy against him; or not perhaps so much against him as against his idea of boot. One does not, I suppose, care to feel like that; for it was again many months before my next visit to his shop, paid, I remember, with the feeling: “Oh! well, I can’t leave the old boy–so here goes!
Perhaps it’ll be his elder brother!”
For his elder brother, I knew, had not character enough to reproach me, even dumbly.
And, to my relief, in the shop there did appear to be his elder brother, handling a piece of leather.
“Well, Mr. Gessler,” I said, “how are you?”
He came close, and peered at me.
“I am breddy well,” he said slowly “but my elder brudder is dead.”
And I saw that it was indeed himself–but how aged and wan! And never before had I heard him mention his brother. Much shocked; I murmured: “Oh! I am sorry!”
“Yes,” he answered, “he was a good man, he made a good bood; but he is dead.” And he touched the top of his head, where the hair had suddenly gone as thin as it had been on that of his poor brother, to indicate, I suppose, the cause of death. “He could nod ged over losing de oder shop. Do you wand any hoods?” And he held up the leather in his hand: “Id’s a beaudiful biece.”
I ordered several pairs. It was very long before they came–but they were better than ever. One simply could not wear them out. And soon after that I went abroad.
It was over a year before I was again in London. And the first shop I went to was my old friend’s. I had left a man of sixty, I came back to one of seventy-five, pinched and worn and tremulous, who genuinely, this time, did not at first know me.
“Oh! Mr. Gessler,” I said, sick at heart; “how splendid your boots are! See, I’ve been wearing this pair nearly all the time I’ve been abroad; and they’re not half worn out, are they?”
He looked long at my boots–a pair of Russia leather, and his face seemed to regain steadiness. Putting his hand on my instep, he said:
“Do dey vid you here? I ‘ad drouble wid dat bair, I remember.”
I assured him that they had fitted beautifully.
“Do you wand any boods?” he said. “I can make dem quickly; id is a slack dime.”
I answered: “Please, please! I want boots all round–every kind!”
“I will make a vresh model. Your food must be bigger.” And with utter slowness, he traced round my foot, and felt my toes, only once looking up to say:
“Did I dell you my brudder was dead?”
To watch him was painful, so feeble had he grown; I was glad to get away.
I had given those boots up, when one evening they came. Opening the parcel, I set the four pairs out in a row. Then one by one I tried them on. There was no doubt about it. In shape and fit, in finish and quality of leather, they were the best he had ever made me. And in the mouth of one of the Town walking-boots I found his bill.
The amount was the same as usual, but it gave me quite a shock. He had never before sent it in till quarter day. I flew down-stairs, and wrote a cheque, and posted it at once with my own hand.
A week later, passing the little street, I thought I would go in and tell him how splendidly the new boots fitted. But when I came to where his shop had been, his name was gone. Still there, in the window, were the slim pumps, the patent leathers with cloth tops, the sooty riding boots.
I went in, very much disturbed. In the two little shops–again made into one–was a young man with an English face.
“Mr. Gessler in?” I said.
He gave me a strange, ingratiating look.
“No, sir,” he said, “no. But we can attend to anything with pleasure. We’ve taken the shop over. You’ve seen our name, no doubt, next door. We make for some very good people.”
“Yes, Yes,” I said; “but Mr. Gessler?”
“Oh!” he answered; “dead.”
“Dead! But I only received these boots from him last Wednesday week.”
“Ah!” he said; “a shockin’ go. Poor old man starved ‘imself.”
“Slow starvation, the doctor called it! You see he went to work in such a way! Would keep the shop on; wouldn’t have a soul touch his boots except himself. When he got an order, it took him such a time. People won’t wait. He lost everybody. And there he’d sit, goin’ on and on–I will say that for him not a man in London made a better boot! But look at the competition! He never advertised! Would ‘ave the best leather, too, and do it all ‘imself. Well, there it is. What could you expect with his ideas?”
“That may be a bit flowery, as the sayin’ is–but I know myself he was sittin’ over his boots day and night, to the very last. You see I used to watch him. Never gave ‘imself time to eat; never had a penny in the house. All went in rent and leather. How he lived so long I don’t know. He regular let his fire go out. He was a character. But he made good boots.”
“Yes,” I said, “he made good boots.”
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