Chief Sales Assistant Weinberl: Does it ever occur to you, Christopher, that we are the backbone of this country?
Grocer Apprentice Christopher: You and me, Herr Weinberl?
Weinberl: The merchant class.
Christopher: Ah, yes.
Weinberl: The backbone of the country. The very vertebrae of continental stability. From coccyx to clavicle–from the Carpathians to … where you will …
Christopher: The toe-nails …
Weinberl: … the Tyrol, from Austro to breakfast, from Hungaria to lights out, the merchant class is the backbone of the empire on which the sun shines out of our doings; do you ever say that to yourself?
Christopher: Not in so many words, Herr Weinberl.
Weinberl: Well you should. What is it after all that distinguishes man from beast?
Christopher: Not a lot, Herr Weiberl.
Christopher: I was thinking that.
Weiberl: What would we be without trade?
Christopher: Closed, Herr Weinberl.
Weinberl: That’s it. The shutters would go up on civilization as we know it. It’s the merchant class that holds everything together. Uniting the deep-sea fisherman and the village maiden over a pickled herring on a mahogany counter … uniting the hovels of Havana and the House of Hanover over a box of hand-rolled cigars, and the matchgirl and the church warden in the fall of a lucifer. The pearl fisher and the courtesan are joined at the neck by the merchant class. We are the brokers between invention and necessity, balancing the supply and demand on the knife edge of profit and loss. I give you–the merchant class!
Christopher: The merchant class!
Weinberl: We know good times and we know bad. Sometimes trade stumbles on its march. The great machine seems to hesitate, the whirling cogwheels and reciprocating pistons disengage, an unearthly silence descends upon the mercantile world … We sit here idly twisting paper into cones, flicking a duster over piles of preserved figs and pyramids of uncertain dates, swatting flies like wanton gods off the north face of the Emmental, and gazing into the street.
And then suddenly with a great roar the engine bursts into life, and the teeming world of commerce is upon us! Someone wants a pound of coffee, someone else an ounce of capers, he wants smoked eel, she wants lemon, a skivvy wants rosewater, a fat lady wants butter, but a skinny one wants whalebones, the curate comes for a candy stick, the bailiff roars for a bottle of brandy, and there’s Gadarene rush on the pigs’ trotters. At such times the merchant class stands alone, ordering the tumult of desire into the ledgerly rhythm of exchange with a composure as implacable as a cottage loaf.