- CHAPTER VI THE HANDS WITH THE RINGS
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THE HANDS WITH THE RINGS
PETER ROLLS junior, unlike his father, had practically no talent for revenge. In common with every warm-blooded creature lower than the angels, he could be fiercely vindictive for a minute or two—long enough, when a small boy, to give a bloody nose and to get one; long enough, at all ages, to want to hit a man, thoroughly smash him, perhaps, or even to kick him into the middle of next week; long enough to feel that he would like to make a woman sorry that she had been rude.
But there was always a spiritual and mental reckoning of a painful description: a soul's house-cleaning which turned him out of doors a miserable waif; and it invariably came too soon, before he had had time to gloat over the blood on another boy's nose, or a man's humiliation, or a woman's repentant blush. Instead of heartily disliking people for the spiteful things they sometimes did, he was apt to turn round and wonder if the fault had not been his; if he were not the abysmal beast.
He had not half repaid Winifred Child for her rudeness with his coldness, yet no sooner was he in the huge grey automobile—which could comfortably have seated eight instead of six—than he felt a pang of remorse, exactly like a gimlet twisting through his heart from top to bottom.
52 THE SHOP-GIRLhimself. "I ought to have hung around and seen that everything went all right. She said she had the address of a good cheap boarding-house. But it may have changed. Or it may be full. And anyway, how will she get there? She ought to take a cab. But will she? And if she does, won't she fall dead at the price? I ought to have warned the poor child. There are shoals of tips I might have put her up to if I hadn't always been talking about myself. What if she was cross? There must have been a reason. I must have done something she didn't feel like pointing out when I asked. What I don't know about women would make three encyclopædias."
It was too late, however, to act upon second thoughts which might or might not be "best." Peter was in the automobile, and it had started. Even if he went back, it would doubtless be only to find Miss Child gone. He tried to console himself with the fact that Ena had been nice to the girl, and that Miss Child had said—or anyhow intimated—that she would write. If she didn't, he could, at worst, find out her whereabouts by going to Nadine. Superior as Miss Child was to the other dryads, she would surely keep up communication with them. Miss Devereux was the sort who might lunch with him on the strength of "old friendship." He would give her oysters and orchids and find out how things were going with the girl who had left her dryadhood behind the cabin door.
He tried to console himself with these arguments, but the pleasure of home-coming was spoiled. Father did not show any very exuberant joy at seeing him again, and it was disappointing to a warm-hearted nature if people were not exuberant even for a minute, when you had been away for months.
53 THE HANDS WITH THE RINGSof mirrors, gold scent-bottles, and other idiocies, its bouncing bouquet of fresh violets, its electric fittings, its air pillows embroidered with silver monograms and crests, its brocade-lined chinchilla rugs, tricky little extra seats and marvellous springs, struck Peter as disgustingly ostentatious.
He wondered what Raygan and his mother and sister would think of folks in a democratic country using chinchilla for automobile rugs; and he was sure they must be having interior hysterics over the Rolls coat of arms—a dragon holding up a spiky crown of some nondescript sort—on a cushion. The dragon looked rather like a frog rampant, and the crowned cushion bore a singular resemblance to a mushroom with an angry ladybird on its apex. How this family insignia had been obtained Peter did not know. His ribald questions had been treated by his sister with silent scorn. He would not be surprised if Ena had designed the thing herself!
As the car smoothly bowled Peter out of Winifred Child's life, away towards the Long Island "manor house" and the welcome mother would give, the deposed dryad was having her first experience of New York.
She parted company on the pier with Nadine (in private life Lady Darling), Nadine's manageress Miss Sorel, and the quartette of models. They had almost forgotten her before they had gone two blocks "uptown"; and she had no reason to remember any of them with affection, except perhaps, Miss Sorel, a relative of her one-time dressmaker who had "got her the job."
Win had heard that the cost of cabs was "something awful" in America, but she said to herself: "Just this first time I must have one." A bad night and the scene with Peter had dimmed the flame of her courage, and she felt a sinking of the heart instead of a sense of
54 THE SHOP-GIRLadventure in the thought of taking a "trolley." She would be sure to lose herself in searching for the boarding-house.
Her luggage—checked and in the hypnotic power of a virile expressman—had already vanished. It would arrive at its destination ahead of her. Perhaps there was no room there. In that case it would be sent away. Dreadful picture! False economy not to take a cab! Win supposed that a taxi would be no dearer than the horse variety and one would sooner learn the secrets of the future.
One of these secrets began to hint at its own hideous nature with every convulsive tick of the meter. It hiccuped nickels, and as Win's terrified eyes, instead of taking in New York watched the spendthrift contrivance yelping for her dollars, she remembered that she owned but two hundred. She had had to be "decent" about tips on board. But forty pounds—two hundred dollars—had looked magnificent in her hand-bag that morning. Paper money spread itself in such a lordly manner and seemed able to buy so many separate things. But by the time the merciless taxi had bumped her through devious ways up to Fifty-Fourth Street three of the beautiful green dollar bills were as good as gone.
She longed to pray "Oh, do stop taxying!" at the door-step before she darted up to inquire whether Miss Hampshire still kept the boarding-house; and it was maddening to hear that "teuf teuf" desperately going on, chewing its silver cud in the long pause before an answer came to the bell.
A black woman who flung open the door was startling as a jack-in-the-box for the English girl. Win had thought of American negroes but vaguely, as a social problem in the newspapers or dear creatures in Thomas Nelson Page's books. What with the surprise and the
55 THE HANDS WITH THE RINGSnervous strain of the disappearing dollars, she asked no further questions after the welcome news that Miss Hampshire existed and had a "room to rent." Hastily she paid off the chauffeur, adding something for himself (it seemed like tipping the man at the guillotine) and breathed again only when her trunk and dressing-bag blocked the narrow hall.
"I'm sure I don't see whoever's goin' to tote them things up to the third story," sighed the female jack-in-the-box, who was after all more purple than black when you looked closely, an illusion produced by a dusting of pink powder over a dark surface. "And how do I know Miss Hampshire'll take you?"
"But you said there was a room." The free-born independence of a whole nation, irrespective of colour, shocked the effete stranger's breath away. She gasped slightly.
"Yeh. But that ain't to say you can have it. Miss Hampshire's mighty pertickler about her woman boarders," explained the purple lady. "You catched me all of a heap or I wouldn't o' let that feller slam yer things into the house and git away. You'll have to wait till I call Miss Hampshire. She'll talk to you."
"Tell her I was recommended by Miss Ellis, from London, who boarded here three years ago," Win desperately tossed after a disappearing figure.
It was a mortifying commentary upon her personal appearance not to be invited to wait in the drawing-room, and Miss Child wondered what foreign strangeness in hat, hair arrangement, or costume had excited suspicion. She did not know whether to be more angry or amused, but recalled her own motto, "Laugh at the world to keep it from laughing first."
Suddenly the episode became part of an adventure, a great and wildly funny adventure, of which she was dying to see the next part. How she would love to tell Mr. Balm of Gilead! How his eves would twinkle!
56 THE SHOP-GIRLBut—there was no Mr. Balm of Gilead in this or any world. It was a dreary hall she stood in, with varnished brown paper pretending to be oak panels, a long-armed hat-rack that would have made an ideal scarecrow, and ghosts of past dinners floating up from below with gloomy warnings.
From the same region came Miss Hampshire, smelling slightly of Irish stew. She was pale with the pallor which means shut windows and furnace heat, a little sharp-nosed, neat-headed woman in brown, whose extraordinarily deep-set eyes were circled with black, like spectacle-rims. She was graciously willing to accept a guest recommended by Miss Ellis, hinting that, as she was of British ancestry, the English for her came under the favoured-nation clause. "To you the room with board'll be ten dollars a week," she said with flattering emphasis. "A well-known poetess has just left it to be married. It's not large, but being at the back of the house, it's nice and quiet."
When Win was shown the third-floor back hall bedroom she saw that even a poetess of passion might have snapped at her first proposal of marriage. As Miss Hampshire said, it was not large; but there was the advantage of being able to reach anything anywhere while sitting on the bed, and unless the people six feet distant in a back room of the opposite house snored at night it ought to be quiet.
Win christened her room the "frying-pan," because to search for another boarding-house might be jumping into the fire. And luckily her trunk would just squeeze under the bed.
"I suppose it would be no use calling on a business man before three o'clock?" She applied to Miss Hampshire for advice, when she had unpacked her tooth-brush and a few small things for which she could find niche or wall-space.
57 THE HANDS WITH THE RINGS
"Before three? And why not?" The pale lady opened her eyes in their dark caverns.
"Why, I thought they wouldn't be back in their offices from luncheon," explained the English girl.
"When you know a little more about N'York," replied Miss Hampshire, whose manner was involuntarily less mellow when she had hooked her fish, "you'll see why it could never be run as it is along those lines. Many of our most prominent business men consider a piece of pie with a tumbler of milk a good and sufficient lunch, and it takes them five minutes to swallow it."
Primed with this information and intricate instructions concerning street-cars (a child once burned dreads the taxi) Winifred started out soon after her own midday meal, eaten in a basement dining-room.
She went first to see the editor; for somehow newspaper reporting seemed more congenial to the vivid New York climate than singing in a church choir, and the hugeness of the "To-day and To-morrow" building turned her again into a worm. It did not so much scrape the sky as soar into it, and when she timidly murmured the words "editorial offices" she was shot up to the top in an elevator as in a perpendicularly directed catapult.
When the fearsome thing stopped she had the sensation that her head alone had arrived, the rest having been shed on the way, but in a large open space furnished with roll-top desks and typewriters and men and girls she was looked at as though nothing unusual had happened.
"A letter of introduction for Mr. Burritt?" repeated a youth with a whimsical expression. "I'm afraid you'll have to go higher up to deliver it."
"I thought I'd got to the top," said Win. "Or"—and she tried to catch the office note of sprightliness—"does he inhabit a roof-garden?"
58 THE SHOP-GIRLthem after office hours. But not being a spiritualist, I haven't heard from him concerning his present habits."
"That's about it," said the young man. "A year ago. But he was only our city editor, so maybe he didn't get a black border in your English papers."
Miss Child did not ask how one knew that she was English. She recovered herself, thought of taking leave, and then decided not to be precipitate. Instead, she inquired if she could see any other editor.
"Which other have you got a letter to?" the youth temporized.
"Then I'm afraid it's no use without an appointment. Anyhow, this isn't the right hour to snap-shot editors of daily papers. They're night-blooming flowers. Would you like to try for an appointment later with Mr. Shaw, Burritt's successor?"
Win thanked him, but thought it would be no use. She would have liked to walk down, only there seemed to be no stairs. A merry youth who ran the nearest elevator asked if she would care to use the fire-escape.
The address of Mr. Noble, the organist, was that of a private house. It was a far cry from "To-day and To-morrow," up in the Hundreds, and Miss Hampshire had told Miss Child to take the Elevated. Easier said than done. You could go up the steps and reach a platform on top of the improved Roman viaduct, but there were so many other people intent on squeezing through the iron gate and on to the up-town train—people far more indomitable than yourself—that nothing happened except the slam, slam of that gate in your face.
59 THE HANDS WITH THE RINGSforth like a pendulum on a strap which she clutched wildly. Men in America were supposed to jump up and give women their seats, but there were no men in this train. It was peopled with women who had been shopping, and who carried bundles. Many went on so far that Win began to believe they were taking a jaunt for fun, especially as they did not seem at all tired, but chewed something unremittingly, with an air of calm delight. This was, perhaps, what Americans called a "joy ride!"
There seemed to be no end to New York, and vistas of cross streets looked so much alike that Win did not wonder they were named only with numbers. She wanted One Hundred and Thirty-Third Street, and Mr. Noble's house was a long way from the Elevated station. When she found it at last it was only to learn that six months ago the organist had accepted a position in Chicago. And New York seemed twice as big, twice as absent-minded when both letters of introduction had failed.
Win had often tried to check her tendency to over-optimism by telling herself that neither Mr. Burritt nor Mr. Noble might have work to give. But Miss Ellis (now comfortably married in London) had said they were kind men. If they had nothing to offer, they would certainly introduce Miss Child to some one who had. It had never occurred to her that they might thoughtlessly have died or gone elsewhere. Editors and organists seemed so importantly permanent to the lay mind.
This was indeed being alone in New York! And at the very thought—now she could guess what it might be like—her one hundred and ninety-six dollars and twenty-eight cents seemed to be shrinking in the wash.
60 THE SHOP-GIRLout of the house without your hat, in a snowstorm that followed you round the stage like a wasp! You'll be all right. Miss Ellis told you they loved English girls in New York. Just you wait till to-morrow, my dear!"
The rest of the day she spent in the frying-pan "pulling herself together," and "seeing where she stood," a process consisting mostly of counting her greenbacks and comparing them with their equivalent in English money. After all, there was not too much time for this mental adjustment of things because, being late in October, darkness fell early and Miss Hampshire's boarders dined at six-thirty. Promptness was obligatory if you were a female. A little more latitude—a raising of the eyebrows instead of a frown—was granted if you were fortunate enough to be of the opposite sex. Miss Hampshire's sad smile seemed to concede that men had temptations.
There were bank clerks and school-teachers and translators, though no more poetesses; and everybody was kind to the new boarder, the Englishwoman, especially in telling her all about New York.
"What do you think of Broadway?" asked her neighbour, a handsome young Austrian Jew, who was more insistently American than any of those native born.
Win was shamefacedly not sure whether she had seen it.
"Not sure whether you have seen"Broadway! exclaimed Mr. Löwenfeld. "Wait till you've been on the Great White Way after dark. Then I guess you won't make any mistake."
"Is it so wonderful?" she asked.
"I should smile! There's nothing like it on earth. Would you like to walk out and see it to-night? Miss Secker and I'll take you, if you would, won't we Miss Secker?"
61 THE HANDS WITH THE RINGS
"Only too pleased," rather shrilly replied a fair-haired girl on his other side—a pretty girl in eye-glasses who, Miss Hampshire had announced, was "translating secretary" for a firm of toy importers. Somehow the tone suggested to Win an incipient engagement of marriage and jealousy of new importations.
But Mr. Löwenfeld had spoken no more than the truth. Broadway at night, seen as a pedestrian at the side of Miss Secker, was astonishing, was marvellous, was unique. The whole sky was alight and pulsing with its magnificence. Twenty moons would not have been noticed. Everything that could happen was happening, by electricity. It was Crystal Palace Fireworks, and the Lord Mayor's Show, and Coronation, and Mafeking, and naval manœuvres with searchlights, all flashing and flaming, blazing and gyrating at the same time. Broadway gleamed white as the north pole, jewelled with rainbow colours, amazing rubies, emeralds, topazes, grouped in letters or forming pictures, on invisible frames rising high above tall buildings, or appearing on their façades.
Green sea-waves billowed brightly, a giant cat winked golden eyes, two brilliant boxers fought an endless round, a dazzling girl put on and took off illuminated gloves; a darky's head, as big as a balloon, ate a special brand of pickled melon; a blue umbrella opened and shut, a great gilded basket dropped ruby roses (Buy them at Perrin Frères); a Japanese Geisha, twice life-size, told you where to get kimonos; a trout larger than a whale appeared and disappeared on a patent hook; and above all, brighter than all, rose against the paling sky from somewhere behind Broadway, a pair of titanic hands.
62 THE SHOP-GIRLemblems of business success. The stranger in New York stopped involuntarily, as if hypnotized, watching for the ten colossal outspread fingers to materialize on their unseen frames; to become hands, with wrists and upraised arms; and then to drop out of sight, like the last appeal for help of a drowning Atlas who had lost his grip on the globe.
Yet this immense, arresting gesture was never the last. Three seconds gone, then blazing back again came fingers, hands, wrists, arms. And on every one of the ten fingers (including thumbs) flashed a huge ring, each different from the other in colour and design. Each ring was adorned with a jewelled letter, and as the hands reached towards the zenith the colour of the rings changed rapidly twice. It was impossible to remove the eyes from this sign until the gesture-pageant had completed itself. To the lost dryad New York seemed dominated by Peter Rolls's Hands.
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