If you are a philosopher you can do this thing: you can go to the top of a high building, look down upon your fellow-men 300 feet below, and despise them as insects. Like the irresponsible black waterbugs on summer ponds, they crawl and circle and hustle about idiotically without aim or purpose. They do not even move with the admirable intelligence of ants, for ants always know when they are going home.
The ant is of a lowly station, but he will often reach home and get his slippers on while you are left at your elevated station.
Man, then, to the housetopped philosopher, appears to be but a creeping, contemptible beetle. Brokers, poets, millionaires, bootblacks, beauties, hod-carriers and politicians become little black specks dodging bigger black specks in streets no wider than your thumb.
From this high view the city itself becomes degraded to an unintelligible mass of distorted buildings and impossible perspectives; the revered ocean is a duck pond; the earth itself a lost golf ball. All the minutiae of life are gone. The philosopher gazes into the infinite heavens above him, and allows his soul to expand to the influence of his new view. He feels that he is the heir to Eternity and the child of Time.
Space, too, should be his by the right of his immortal heritage, and he thrills at the thought that some day his kind shall traverse those mysterious aerial roads between planet and planet. The tiny world beneath his feet upon which this towering structure of steel rests as a speck of dust upon a Himalayan mountain — it is but one of a countless number of such whirling atoms.
What are the ambitions, the achievements, the paltry conquests and loves of those restless black insects below compared with the serene and awful immensity of the universe that lies above and around their insignificant city?
It is guaranteed that the philosopher will have these thoughts. They have been expressly compiled from the philosophies of the world and set down with the proper interrogation point at the end of them to represent the invariable musings of deep thinkers on high places. And when the philosopher takes the elevator down his mind is broader, his heart is at peace, and his conception of the cosmogony of creation is as wide as the buckle of Orion’s summer belt.
But if your name happened to be Daisy, and you worked in an Eighth Avenue candy store and lived in a little cold hall bedroom, five feet by eight, and earned $6 per week, and ate ten-cent lunches and were nineteen years old, and got up at 6:30 and worked till 9, and never had studied philosophy, maybe things wouldn’t look that way to you from the top of a skyscraper.
Two sighed for the hand of Daisy, the unphilosophical. One was Joe, who kept the smallest store in New York. It was about the size of a tool-box of the D. P. W., and was stuck like a swallow’s nest against a corner of a down-town skyscraper.
Its stock consisted of fruit, candies, newspapers, song books, cigarettes, and lemonade in season. When stern winter shook his congealed locks and Joe had to move himself and the fruit inside, there was exactly room in the store for the proprietor, his wares, a stove the size of a vinegar cruet, and one customer.
Joe was not of the nation that keeps us forever in a furore with fugues and fruit. He was a capable American youth who was laying by money, and wanted Daisy to help him spend it. Three times he had asked her.
“I got money saved up, Daisy,” was his love song; “and you know how bad I want you. That store of mine ain’t very big, but — ”
“Oh, ain’t it?” would be the antiphony of the unphilosophical one. “Why, I heard Wanamaker’s was trying to get you to sublet part of your floor space to them for next year.”
Daisy passed Joe’s corner every morning and evening.
“Hello, Two-by-Four!” was her usual greeting. “Seems to me your store looks emptier. You must have sold a pack of chewing gum.”
“Ain’t much room in here, sure,” Joe would answer, with his slow grin, “except for you, Daise. Me and the store are waitin’ for you whenever you’ll take us. Don’t you think you might before long?”
“Store!” — a fine scorn was expressed by Daisy’s uptilted nose — “sardine box! Waitin’ for me, you say? Gee! you’d have to throw out about a hundred pounds of candy before I could get inside of it, Joe.”
“I wouldn’t mind an even swap like that,” said Joe, complimentary.
Daisy’s existence was limited in every way. She had to walk sideways between the counter and the shelves in the candy store. In her own hall bedroom coziness had been carried close to cohesiveness. The walls were so near to one another that the paper on them made a perfect Babel of noise. She could light the gas with one hand and close the door with the other without taking her eyes off the reflection of her brown pompadour in the mirror.
She had Joe’s picture in a gilt frame on the dresser, and sometimes — but her next thought would always be of Joe’s funny little store tacked like a soap box to the corner of that great building, and away would go her sentiment in a breeze of laughter.
Daisy’s other suitor followed Joe by several months. He came to board in the house where she lived. His name was Dabster, and he was a philosopher. Though young, attainments stood out upon him like continental labels on a Passaic (N. J.) suit-case. Knowledge he had kidnapped from cyclopedias and handbooks of useful information; but as for wisdom, when she passed he was left sniffling in the road without so much as the number of her motor car.
He could and would tell you the proportion of water and muscle-making properties of peas and veal, the shortest verse in the Bible, the number of pounds of shingle nails required to fasten 256 shingles laid four inches to the weather, the population of Kankakee, Ill., the theories of Spinoza, the name of Mr. H. McKay Twombly’s second hall footman, the length of the Hoosac Tunnel, the best time to set a hen, the salary of the railway post-office messenger between Driftwood and Red Bank Furnace, Pa., and the number of bones in the foreleg of a cat.
The weight of learning was no handicap to Dabster. His statistics were the sprigs of parsley with which he garnished the feast of small talk that he would set before you if he conceived that to be your taste. And again he used them as breastworks in foraging at the boardinghouse.
Firing at you a volley of figures concerning the weight of a lineal foot of bar-iron 5 × 2¾ inches, and the average annual rainfall at Fort Snelling, Minn., he would transfix with his fork the best piece of chicken on the dish while you were trying to rally sufficiently to ask him weakly why does a hen cross the road.
Thus, brightly armed, and further equipped with a measure of good looks, of a hair-oily, shopping-district-at-three-in-the-afternoon kind, it seems that Joe, of the Lilliputian emporium, had a rival worthy of his steel. But Joe carried no steel. There wouldn’t have been room in his store to draw it if he had.
One Saturday afternoon, about four o’clock, Daisy and Mr. Dabster stopped before Joe’s booth. Dabster wore a silk hat, and — well, Daisy was a woman, and that hat had no chance to get back in its box until Joe had seen it. A stick of pineapple chewing gum was the ostensible object of the call. Joe supplied it through the open side of his store. He did not pale or falter at sight of the hat.
“Mr. Dabster’s going to take me on top of the building to observe the view,” said Daisy, after she had introduced her admirers. “I never was on a skyscraper. I guess it must be awfully nice and funny up there.”
“H’m!” said Joe.
“The panorama,” said Mr. Dabster, “exposed to the gaze from the top of a lofty building is not only sublime, but instructive. Miss Daisy has a decided pleasure in store for her.”
“It’s windy up there, too, as well as here,” said Joe. “Are you dressed warm enough, Daise?”
“Sure thing! I’m all lined,” said Daisy, smiling slyly at his clouded brow. “You look just like a mummy in a case, Joe. Ain’t you just put in an invoice of a pint of peanuts or another apple? Your stock looks awful over-stocked.”
Daisy giggled at her favorite joke; and Joe had to smile with her.
“Your quarters are somewhat limited, Mr. — er — er,” remarked Dabster, “in comparison with the size of this building. I understand the area of its side to be about 340 by 100 feet. That would make you occupy a proportionate space as if half of Beloochistan were placed upon a territory as large as the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, with the Province of Ontario and Belgium added.”
“Is that so, sport?” said Joe, genially. “You are Weisenheimer on figures, all right. How many square pounds of baled hay do you think a jackass could eat if he stopped brayin’ long enough to keep still a minute and five eighths?”
A few minutes later Daisy and Mr. Dabster stepped from an elevator to the top floor of the skyscraper. Then up a short, steep stairway and out upon the roof. Dabster led her to the parapet so she could look down at the black dots moving in the street below.
“What are they?” she asked, trembling. She had never been on a height like this before.
And then Dabster must needs play the philosopher on the tower, and conduct her soul forth to meet the immensity of space.
“Bipeds,” he said, solemnly. “See what they become even at the small elevation of 340 feet — mere crawling insects going to and fro at random.”
“Oh, they ain’t anything of the kind,” exclaimed Daisy, suddenly — “they’re folks! I saw an automobile. Oh, gee! are we that high up?”
“Walk over this way,” said Dabster.
He showed her the great city lying like an orderly array of toys far below, starred here and there, early as it was, by the first beacon lights of the winter afternoon. And then the bay and sea to the south and east vanishing mysteriously into the sky.
“I don’t like it,” declared Daisy, with troubled blue eyes. “Say we go down.”
But the philosopher was not to be denied his opportunity. He would let her behold the grandeur of his mind, the half-nelson he had on the infinite, and the memory he had for statistics. And then she would nevermore be content to buy chewing gum at the smallest store in New York.
And so he began to prate of the smallness of human affairs, and how that even so slight a removal from earth made man and his works look like one tenth part of a dollar thrice computed. And that one should consider the sidereal system and the maxims of Epictetus and be comforted.
“You don’t carry me with you,” said Daisy. “Say, I think it’s awful to be up so high that folks look like fleas. One of them we saw might have been Joe. Why, Jiminy! we might as well be in New Jersey! Say, I’m afraid up here!”
The philosopher smiled fatuously.
“The earth,” said he, “is itself only as a grain of wheat in space. Look up there.”
Daisy gazed upward apprehensively. The short day was spent and the stars were coming out above.
“Yonder star,” said Dabster, “is Venus, the evening star. She is 66,000,000 miles from the sun.”
“Fudge!” said Daisy, with a brief flash of spirit, “where do you think I come from — Brooklyn? Susie Price, in our store — her brother sent her a ticket to go to San Francisco — that’s only three thousand miles.”
The philosopher smiled indulgently.
“Our world,” he said, “is 91,000,000 miles from the sun. There are eighteen stars of the first magnitude that are 211,000 times further from us than the sun is. If one of them should be extinguished it would be three years before we would see its light go out. There are six thousand stars of the sixth magnitude. It takes thirty-six years for the light of one of them to reach the earth. With an eighteen-foot telescope we can see 43,000,000 stars, including those of the thirteenth magnitude, whose light takes 2,700 years to reach us. Each of these stars — ”
“You’re lyin’,” cried Daisy, angrily. “You’re tryin’ to scare me. And you have; I want to go down!”
She stamped her foot.
“Arcturus — ” began the philosopher, soothingly, but he was interrupted by a demonstration out of the vastness of the nature that he was endeavoring to portray with his memory instead of his heart. For to the heart-expounder of nature the stars were set in the firmament expressly to give soft light to lovers wandering happily beneath them; and if you stand tiptoe some September night with your sweetheart on your arm you can almost touch them with your hand. Three years for their light to reach us, indeed!
Out of the west leaped a meteor, lighting the roof of the skyscraper almost to midday. Its fiery parabola was limned against the sky toward the east. It hissed as it went, and Daisy screamed.