Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Emory Women Writers Resource Project

The Shop-Girl, an electronic edition

by C.N. Williamson [Williamson, C.N. (Charles Norris), 1859-1920]

by A.M. Williamson [Williamson, A.M. (Alice Muriel Livingston), 1869-1933]

date: 1916
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

Table of Contents

<< chapter 6 chapter 27 >>

Display page layout


THE hands of Peter Rolls! They had Winifred Child's imagination in their grip. Sleeping and waking, she saw the glitter of their rings. For on her first night in New York Mr. Löwenfeld told her a story about the hands.

They were the hands of Peter senior. His commercial genius had spread them across the sky to beckon the public to his great new department-store on Sixth Avenue. Just as at the beginning of the gesture you saw only the tips of the fingers, so Peter Rolls senior had begun with a tiny flicker, the first groping of his inspiration feeling its way to success.

Everybody in the United States had heard of Peter Rolls or it was not the fault of the magazines and Sunday papers. Peter Rolls had been for years one of the greatest advertisers in America. Mr. Löwenfeld didn't see how, even on a remote little island like England, Miss Child could have escaped hearing about Peter Rolls's hands. This had now become the snappy way of saying that you intended to shop at Peter Rolls's store: "I'm going to the Hands." "I'll get that at the Hands." And Peter Rolls had emphasized the phrase on the public tongue by his method of advertising.

Each advertisement that appeared took the same form—a square space heavily outlined in black or colour, held up by a pair of ringed hands, facsimiles in miniature of his famous sky sign. And the several | | 64 thousand salespeople in the huge store were slangily nicknamed "Peter Rolls's hands." But naturally these insignificant morsels of the great mosaic were not spelled with a capital H, unless, perhaps, by themselves, and once when a vaudeville favourite sang a song, "I'm a Hand, I'm a Hand." It was a smart song, and made a hit; but Peter Rolls was said to have paid both the star and the management.

Apparently nothing concerning Peter Rolls senior and his family was hidden from Mr. Löwenfeld and Miss Secker, although they claimed no personal acquaintance with the great. Probably, if Win had asked, they could have told how many servants Mrs. Rolls kept and how many cases of champagne her husband ordered in a year. But questions were unnecessary. The subject of a self-made millionaire was a fascinating one to the lately naturalized Austrian.

Peter Rolls senior had emigrated from the north of Ireland as a young boy. He had contrived to buy a few cheap odds and ends likely to attract women buried in the country far from shops. He had somehow known exactly what odds and ends to select. That was genius; and he had coined money as a pedlar. In his wandering life he scraped acquaintance with many tramps and saw how he might make even the lowest useful. After a few years he piled up enough capital to start a small store in New York, far down-town where rents were cheap.

Like his pedlar's pack, the store was stocked with odds and ends. But again they were just the right odds and ends, the odds and ends that every one in that neighbourhood wanted and had never been able to obtain under one roof. No article cost less than five cents, none more than a dollar, and it was marvellous what Peter Rolls could afford to sell for a dollar.

"I Can Furnish Your Flat for Ten Dollars. Why? | | 65 Because I Work With My Own Hands," was Peter Rolls's first advertisement. And the Hands had never lost their cunning since.

He could undersell any other shopkeeper in New York because he got his salesmen for next to nothing. They were a judicious selection from among his friends, the tramps. Any man who could recall enough of his schooling to do a little sum in addition was eligible. He was fed, clothed, tobaccoed, judiciously beered, watched all day while at work, and shut up at night in a fire-proof, drink-proof cubicle. The plan proved a brilliant success. The little store down-town became a big one, and grew bigger and bigger, swallowing all the other stores in its block; and it was now ten years since the great Sixth Avenue department-store, which could call itself the largest in New York, was opened under the benediction of the Hands.

Winifred had fancied, because of the balm which was making a fortune, that Peter Rolls senior was some sort of a glorified chemist. But Mr. Löwenfeld roared at this idea. The Balm of Gilead was only one of the lucky hits in the drug department, in itself as big as a good-sized provincial store. The Hands sold everything, and though the tramps were long ago dead or abolished, Peter Rolls still undersold every other store in New York. How did he do it? Well—there were ways. The hands without a capital H might tell, perhaps; but they did not talk much. Peter Rolls never had any difficulty in obtaining or keeping as many of them as he wanted, and could get double the number if he liked.

"Does he still 'work with his own hands'?" quoted Win at last, feeling half guilty, as if she ought not to ask questions about Peter's father behind Peter's back. But the affairs of the Rolls family seemed to be public property.

| | 66

Mr. Löwenfeld and Miss Secker both laughed.

"I should love," said the latter, "to see Ena Rolls's face if her father did work! She spells their name with an 'e'—R-o-l-l-e-s—and hopes the smart set on Long Island, where their new palace is, won't realize they're the Hands. Isn't it ridiculous? Like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. She runs her father and mother socially. I guess the old man hardly dares put his nose inside the store, except about once a year; and Ena and the old lady never buy a pin there. As for the young fellow, they say he doesn't bother: hates business and wants to be a philanthropist or something outlandish on his own. I should say to him, if he asked me: 'Charity begins at home.'"

Those last two sentences spoken by Miss Emma Secker on Winifred Child's first night in New York had as direct an effect upon the girl's life as if the ringed hands had come down out of the sky and clutched her dress. She did not attach much importance to the words at the time, except to think it snobbish of Miss Rolls and weak of her mother never to show themselves under the roof where their fortune was being piled up. Also, she thought it disappointing of Peter junior not to "bother" about the business which had been his father's life-work. But then Peter was altogether disappointing, as Miss Rolls (with an "e") had disinterestedly warned her.

It was not until Win had been in New York for a month that the influence of Miss Secker's words made itself felt, and the Hands gave their twitch at the hem of her dress. They had been on her mind often enough during the four weeks—morning, noon, and night—but she had never known that she was physically within touching distance.

The "happy omen" of getting her passage to New York free had stopped working on the Monarchic Since | | 67 then bad luck had walked after her and jumped onto her lap and purred on her pillow, exactly like a cat that persistently clings to a person who dislikes it. All the positions which she was competent to fill were filled already. Only those she could not undertake seemed to be open. She tried to sing, she tried to teach, she tried to report news, she tried to be a publisher's reader, and to get work in a public library. She tried to make hats, she tried to act, but nobody wanted her to do any of these things, unless, perhaps, she went away and trained hard for a year. When matters began to look desperate, and not till then, she applied to Nadine.

But Lady Darling had gone back to England, and Miss Sorel, not having recovered her health after the great tossing at sea, had been replaced by a brand-new American manageress. No more models were wanted. There was nothing that Miss Child could do, and the only result of her visit was delight in the heart of Miss Devereux because "that queer Child girl was laughing on the wrong side of her mouth." The new manageress was so preoccupied in manner and so sure that Miss Child's services would not be needed that Win did not even leave her address. Besides, as it happened, she had given Miss Hampshire "notice," and had not yet found another boarding-house.

"I think I ought to try to get into a cheaper place," she explained. And that was a reason; but another, just as important, was pretty Miss Secker's jealousy because Mr. Löwenfeld talked too much to the English girl at the table.

After all, the best that Win could accomplish after three days' dismal search was a saving of two dollars a week. For eight dollars she secured a fourth story back hall bedroom half as big and half as clean as Miss Hampshire's, and she laughed aloud to find herself | | 68 feeling desperately homesick for the "frying-pan.'' For Win could still laugh.

It was counting her money, the day after a servant at the new boarding-house stole twenty dollars, that whisked Miss Child's skirt within reach of the Hands. Things could not go on like this. She must get something to do at once—no matter what. Another girl in that house bought newspapers for the sake of the employment notices. Winifred borrowed the papers and answered many of the most attractive offers in vain. Next she tried the less attractive ones. When they were used up—and she also—she came down to what she called bed-rock.

In bed-rock were advertisements of several large stores for extra help through the holiday season. Of these Peter Rolls's store was at the head. "The Hands want hands," was part of the appeal, and Win instantly turned to something else. It was not until she had applied for work at six other shops, and found herself too late at all, that it began to seem faintly possible for her to think of going to Peter Rolls's father's store.

When the idea did knock at the door of her mind hesitatingly, as Peter junior used to knock at the dryad door, the Hands' advertisement for help was the last of its kind in the papers. The Hands needed more hands than any of the other stores.

When Win was just about to say to herself, "That's the one thing I couldn't do," she remembered Miss Secker's words. Miss Rolls ruled her father and mother socially. Peter senior was allowed to show his nose in the place only about once a year. Mrs. and Miss Rolls never bought a pin there. Young Peter didn't bother, but wanted to be a philanthropist. In fact you would, apparently, be far more likely to meet a member of the Rolls family in any other shop than their own.

| | 69

Instead of saying that she could not, Win said: "Why shouldn't I?" She told herself that in a vast house of business which employed over two thousand salespeople she would be a needle in a haystack—a needle with a number, not a name. "I'll go and ask for a place," she answered her own question.

But almost she hoped that she would not succeed. If she tried, failure would not be her fault.

<< chapter 6 chapter 27 >>