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

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<< chapter 7 chapter 27 >>

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NO. 2884

MORNING and girl were grey with cold as Win hovered before the vast expanse of plate-glass which made of Peter Rolls's department-store a crystal palace. Customers would not be admitted for an hour, yet the lovely wax ladies and the thrilling wax men in the window world wore the air of never having stopped doing their life-work since they were appointed to it.

But then they had a life-work of the most charming description. Winifred envied them. It was indeed their business to make all men, women, and children who passed envy them enough to stop, enter the store, and purchase things to make real life as much as possible like life in the window world.

All the nicest things which could be done in the strenuous outside world could in a serene and silent way be done in window world. And the lovely ladies and their thrilling mankind had not to hustle from one corner of the earth to another in order to find different amusements.

In one section of plate-glass existence beautiful girls were being dressed by their maids for a ball. Some were almost ready to start. Exquisite cloaks were being folded about their shoulders by fascinating French soubrettes with little lace caps like dabs of whipped cream. Other willowy creatures were lazy enough to be still in filmy "princess" petticoats and | | 71 long, web-like silk corsets ensheathing their figures nearly to their knees. A realistic dressing-table, a lace-canopied bed, and pale-blue curtains formed their background. Instead of having to rush half across New York to the dance, it was apparently taking place next door, with only a thin partition as a wall.

In a somewhat Louis Seize room several wondrous wax girls and the same number of wax young men with extremely broad shoulders and slender hips were dancing a decorous tango. But, if they tired of that, they had only to move on a section, to find a party of four young people playing tennis in appropriate costumes against a trellis of crimson ramblers. Strange to say, a mere wall divided this summer scene from sports in the high Alps. There was gorgeous fun going on in this portion of window world, where men and girls were ski-ing, tobogganing, and snowballing each other in deep cotton snow. Next door they were skating on a surface so mirror-like that, in fact, it was a mirror.

A little farther on a young wax mother of no more than eighteen was in a nursery caressing an immense family of wax children of all ages from babyhood up to twelve years. A grandmother was there, too, and a hospital nurse, and several playful dogs and cats. In another house they were having a Christmas tree, and Santa Claus had come in person to be master of ceremonies. How the wax children on the other side of a partition, engaged in learning lessons at school desks, must have envied those whose Christmas had prematurely come! But best of all was the automobile race; or, perhaps, the zoo of window world, where Teddy bears and Teddy monkeys and Teddy snakes and Teddy everythings disported themselves together among trees and flowers in Peter Rolls's conception of Eden.

Win had often glanced into these windows before hurrying nervously past, but now she lingered, trying | | 72 to fill her heart with the waxen peace of that luxurious land of leisure. She walked very slowly all around the great square, three sides of which were crystal, the fourth being given up to huge open doors, through which streamed men and parcels and hurled themselves into motor vans. The idea flashed into the girl's head that here was the cemetery of window land. In those big boxes and packages which men furiously yet indifferently carried out were the dolls or animals that had smiled or romped behind the plate-glass, or the dresses and hats, the tennis rackets and toboggans the wax lovers had fondly thought their own.

This promenade of inspection and introspection put off the evil minute for a while; but the time came when Win must hook herself onto the tail of a procession constantly entering at an inconspicuous side door, or else go home with the project abandoned.

"Of course I shall never see Peter Rolls or his sister here," she told herself for the twentieth time, and passed through the door almost on the back of an enormous young man, while a girl closed in behind her with the intimacy of a sardine.

"Gee! Get on to the tall Effect in brown! "murmured a voice.

"Ain't she the baby doll?" another voice wanted to know.

Winifred heard, and realized that she was the Effect and baby doll in question. She flushed, and her ears tingled. She thought of the Arabian Nights tale, where the searcher after the Golden Water was pestered by voices of those who had been turned to black stones on the way.

When the queue of tightly packed men and women had advanced along a corridor on the other side of the doorway, it began mounting a fire-proof staircase. Up and up it went, slowly, steadily rising from story to story, | | 73 but it did not spread across the whole width of the wide, shallow steps. Other men and women, in single file and with no attention to order, pushed themselves down, the ascending gang flattening them against the varnished, green wall as they sneaked hastily past. No one spoke to Win, or told her anything (though the big fellow in front threw her a jovial glance when she trod on his heel, and she herself ventured a look at the rear sardine), but she knew somehow that the irregular, descending procession was the defeated army in flight; those who "would not do." She wondered if she should be among them after a few hours of vain waiting and standing on her feet.

Seven flights of stairs she counted, and then she and those in front and behind debouched into a corridor much longer than that at the entrance on the ground floor.

"They might have shot us up in the customers' lifts!" snapped the sardine who had just detached herself from Winifred's spine. "'Twould have saved their time and our tempers."

"They don't spend money putting up fire-proof staircases for nothing," mumbled a voice over the sardine's shoulder. "They want to give us a free exhibition of an emergency exit. But it'll be the only thing we ever will get free here."

"Except maybe the sack—or the bounce," tittered the sardine.

There was something likable about that sardine. Win felt mentally drawn to her, which was fortunate in the circumstances.

Nearer and nearer they approached, with a kind of shuffle-step, to an office whose whole front consisted of window. This window was raised, and electric light streaming out brightened that distant end of the otherwise economically lit corridor. The advance-guard of | | 74 would-be hands stepped one at a time in front of a counter which took the place of a window-ledge. Now and then a girl or a man was kept for several moments talking to a person whom Win could not yet see; a kind of god in the machine. This halt delayed the procession and meant that a hand was being engaged; but oftener than not the pause was short, and the look on the late applicant's face as he or she turned to scurry back like a chased dog along the corridor told its own story.

Win read each human document, as a page opened and then shut forever under her eyes, with a sick, cold pang for the tragedy of the unwanted. She ceased to feel that she was alien to these young men and women, because they were American and she English. A curious impression thrilled through her that she and these others and all dwellers on earth were but so many beads threaded on the same glittering string, that string the essence of the Creator, uniting all if they but knew.

The realization that hearts near hers were beating with hope or dread, or sinking with disappointment, was so keen that the heavy air of the place became charged for Win with the electricity of emotion. She felt what all felt in a strange confusion; and when a stricken face went by it was she, Winifred Child, who was stricken. What happened to others suddenly mattered just as much and in exactly the same degree as what might happen to her. The weight of sadness and weariness pressed upon her. The smell of unaired clothes and stale, cheap perfumes made her head ache.

"Tired, girlie?" inquired the big young man upon whose broad back Win had involuntarily reposed on the way upstairs. She was startled at this manner of address, but the brotherly benevolence on the square face under a thick brushwood of blond hair, reassured | | 75 her. Evidently "girlie" was the right word in the right place.

"Not so very. Are you?" She felt that conversation would be a relief. It was intensely cold yet stuffy in the corridor, and time seemed endless.

"Me? Huh! Bet yer my place yer can't guess what my job was up to a month ago."

He turned a strongly cut profile far over his shoulder, his head pivoting on a great column of throat above a low, loose collar that had a celluloid gleam where the light touched it. Only one eye and the transparent gleam of another cornea were given to Winifred's view; but that one green-grey orb was as compelling as a dozen ordinary seeing apparatus.

"If I guessed what's in my mind, I'm afraid it would be silly," said Win. "You look as if you might be a—a boxer—or——"

"Or what?"

"Or as if you could train things—animals, I mean——"

"Gee-whittaker! If she ain't hit it square in the jaw first round! Go up ahead, little girl. This is where I move down one."

The sardines were now so loose in their partially emptied box that they could wriggle and even change positions if they liked. The big young man wheeled, passed his arm round Winifred's waist as if for a waltz, half lifted her off her feet, and set her down where he had been.

"Good gracious!" she gasped.

"That's what you get for bein' a bright child," he explained." The place is yours. See? If Peter Rolls wants only one more hand when your turn comes, you're it, and I'm left. I was lion man in Jakes and Boon's show, but my best lion died on me, and that kind o' got my goat. Guess my nerve went; and them | | 76 brutes is as quick as fleas to jump if they feel you don't know where you are at once. That shop is shut for yours truly, so I'm doin' my darnedest to get another. If Peter Rolls can use me, he can have me dirt cheap. I want to feed my face again. It needs it!"

"You give Father one straight look between the eyes," suggested the sardine, now at his back, "sort of as if he was a lion, and I'd bet my bottom dollar, if I had one, he dasn't hand you the frosty mitt."

"Who's Father?" the lion-tamer threw over his shoulder. Win had longed to ask the same question, but had not liked to betray herself as an amateur.

"Oh, I forgot this was your first party! Wish 'twas mine. Father's what the supe—the superintendent, the gent in the window—gets himself called by us guyls."

"Wipe me off the map! I'm some Johnny to cost you all that breath. But gee! the thought of standin' up to him gets my goat worse 'n twice his weight in lions. I'm mighty glad this young lady's gotta go through with it in front of me. Say, maybe you'll push the right bell with him, too."

"I hope we both may," answered Win fervently. "It's more than kind of you to give me your place, but really I——"

"Ain't we the polite one?" remarked the lion-tamer. "Say, girlie, you've made a hit with me. Where did you buy your swell accent?"

"Don't make fun of me, please, or I shall drop!" exclaimed Win with a laugh nipped in the bud, lest it should reach the august ear of Father.

This way of taking the joke appeased those within hearing, who had perhaps believed that the tall Effect in brown thought a lot of herself and was putting on airs. Her seeming to imply that she might be considered ridiculous inclined censors to leniency.

| | 77

"Have a spruce cream?" asked a girl in front, screwing her head round to see what the Effect was like and offering a small, flat object about an inch in width and two in length.

"Thank you very much," said Win.

Every one near tittered good-naturedly. Perhaps it was that accent again! Funny, thought Win. Her idea had been that Americans had an accent, because they didn't talk like English people who had invented the language. Americans appeared to think it was the other way round!

She put the flat thing into her mouth and began to chew it. At first it was very nice; sugary, with a fresh, woodsy flavour which was new to her. Presently, however, the sweetness and some of the taste melted away, and instead of dissolving, so that she could swallow it, the substance kept all its bulk and assumed a rubbery texture, exactly like a doll's nose she had once bitten off and never forgotten. She coughed a little and did not quite know what to do.

"Good Heavens! she's goin' to absorb it!" ejaculated the girl in front, still twisting to gaze at the tall Effect. "Didn't you never chew gum before?"

"Only millionaires can afford it in my country," said Win, recovering herself. The laugh was with her! But every sound made was piano. There was the feeling among the mice that this was the cat's house.

The girl in front who had offered the chewing-gum was small and just missed being very pretty. She had curly hair of so light a red that it was silvery at the roots. Seeing her from behind, you hoped for a radiant beauty, but she had pale, prominent eyes and a hard mouth. Win imagined that the muscles in her cheeks were over-developed because of chewing too much gum.

At last the procession had moved on so far that this girl arrived at the lighted window. Win's heart, which | | 78 had missed a beat in a sudden flurry of fear now and then, began to pound like a hammer.

For the first time she could see the god in the machine, the superintendent of Peter Rolls's vast store, a kind of prime minister with more power than the king. She had fancied that he would be old, a man of such importance in a great establishment, a person who had the nickname of Father. But her anxious gaze, as she carefully kept her distance, told that he was not even middle-aged. He was, it seemed, a curious mixture of cherub and Mephistopheles in type: round-faced, blue-eyed, with smooth cheeks that looked pink even in the cruel electric light. His hair and brushed-up eyebrows were thin and of a medium brown; but he had a sharply waxed moustache and a little pointed goatee or "imperial" so much darker in colour that they were conspicuous objects.

He was talking to the girl in a high-keyed yet somewhat blustering voice, asking questions which Win could not and did not try to hear. The answers were given purposely in a low tone, and the girl laid on the counter several papers from a small black bag at her waist. These the superintendent took up, unfolding them with plump, dimpled fingers, like those of a young woman.

With his bright, glancing blue eyes he skimmed the contents of each paper—probably references, thought Win—and then returned them to their owner.

"These are no good," he pronounced in a louder voice than before. "And you don't look strong enough for Christmas work——"

Suddenly the red-haired girl darted her head forward, like that of a pecking bird, hastily muttered a few words and drew back, as if hoping that those not concerned might fail to notice the manoeuvre.

"Oh—er—that's different," said the superintendent | | 79 in an odd, uncomfortable tone, with the hint of "bluster" still in it. Win fancied she heard him add: "What salary?" In any case, the girl mentioned the sum of eight dollars, and at the same time scribbled something on a printed paper form pushed over the counter.

"Bet that ain't your line, kid," there came a murmur round the corner of a velvet bow on Win's hat. So faint was the murmur that she might almost have dreamed it; but, if uttered, it must have dropped from heaven or the lion-tamer's lips.

Win was burning with curiosity. What two or three talismanic words could the red-haired girl have whispered so quietly, so secretively, to change in a second the superintendent's decision? It was almost like freemasonry. You whispered to the hangman and he, realizing that you were a member, took the noose off your neck!

Alas, if Father refused her services, as he almost surely would, she had no such magic charm to make him change his mind! There was certainly a mystery, a secret password that did the trick; but the lion-tamer, though a newcomer in this business like herself, appeared to know or guess, and bet that it "wasn't in her line."

Too late to ask questions! Her time had come. The red-haired girl, looking prettier than before because of a bright flush on her sallow face, pranced away, head triumphantly up and a key and a queer little book in her hand.

Before Win realized what was happening she stood before the big lighted window, longing though not daring to rest her trembling elbows on the counter. The cherubic yet keen blue eyes were staring into hers with the oddest expression she had ever seen. If the man had not been an important official, far above her (he would have thought) in position, Win might have | | 80 fancied that he was afraid of her, afraid of something which he half expected, half dreaded, wishing to avert it, yet likely to be mortified if it did not come.

"I must be out of my mind," she told herself, at the same time telling him that she desired an engagement as an extra hand.

"What references?" he inquired, with the mechanical intonation of one who has put the same question thousands of times.

"I—haven't any," stammered Win. "I'm lately over from England——"

"You don't need to mention that," broke in the superintendent. "I know London. Have you worked in any of the big department-stores there—Harrods' or Selfridge's?" He looked, Win thought (clinging to a straw of hope) as if he were not unwilling to help her.

"No, none. I was a model for Nadine. I'm quick at doing figures——"

"The figures that models cut are more to the point, I guess!" The cherub Mephistopheles smiled at this joke and did not seem to care just then that his every extra word kept the procession back an extra instant. "We're not wanting models at present. But if you've had any experience as a saleslady—you look all right—well, see here, I'll try and give you a chance. It's up to you to make good, though. What money do you want? Write it down."

He indicated one of those forms which Win had seen. She hesitated, then felt that the blue eyes were watching her keenly. Hesitation was not the way to succeed in this home of hustle. She remembered that the red-haired girl, though she must have had experience or she would not have possessed references, had said something about eight dollars. "I'll say seven," Win told herself, and wrote accordingly on the paper.

"We can't pay seven dollars per week to a girl | | 81 without experience," pronounced the superintendent promptly. "If you want to take six, I'll give you a test of character. You ought to be thankful for six. By and by you may work up into one of the departments where we pay commissions."

"I'll take six," Win said.

Though already she knew something of the expense of living in New York, six dollars a week certainly seemed generous compared with shop-girls' wages at home. She had been told that there they got only twelve or fourteen shillings, and sometimes less. Of course, in England, you "lived in." Win had heard that expression, and was aware of its meaning. She was not yet quite sure what you did in America, for she had talked to none of her very few acquaintances about the need she had to look for work in a department-store. There was only one thing she did know in that connection: it would be unwise to ask Father questions.

She must appear to be "all there," and trust to finding out the routine of a New York shop-girl's life from one of themselves. She hoped the sardine would be engaged—nice, trim little sardine with smooth black pompadour, small white face, jewel-bright eyes, pugnacious nose, determined chin! A snappy yet somehow trustworthy sardine.

Still the superintendent was observing her, as if to see whether she were warranted sound and kind. "I'm going to put you into a bargain square," said he thoughtfully. "Do you know what that means?"

"I can guess," said she.

"One of our two-hour bargain sales will tell better than anything else whether you've got stuff in you," he went on. "Have you ever seen a check-book?" was the question now flashed at her.

Win had just sense enough left not to blurt out any nonsense about a bank. In an instant she realized | | 82 that the pads upon which salespeople did hasty sums must be called check-books, anyhow in America. She answered that she had seen one.

"Know what to do with it?"

"On principle. I can soon learn the method."

"Soon's a long word. You may have time for it, your side. We haven't. Things have gotta be learned on the nail. See here, what about your dress? Are you wearing black under that jacket?"

Win's heart jumped. She had not expected, if engaged, to begin work the next moment. She had supposed that she would be told to return the next morning, before the opening hour for customers, otherwise it might have occurred to her that it would be well to get a ready-made black dress. But she must not throw away this chance which seemed to be hanging in the balance.

"No," she answered quickly. "I thought it would be better to buy something here when I knew just what was wanted. I can find a dress which will fit, I know. I always can, and I can be in it fifteen minutes from now."

"Well," the superintendent said with half-grudging approval that lit a faint twinkle in his eyes, "you're no slow coach for an Englishwoman. You may do. We sell ten per cent off to our employees. Here's the key of your locker. Here's your check-book. When you've got your dress, ask for the schoolroom. Take fifteen minutes' lesson on the blackboard for making out your checks, and the rest's up to you. But look sharp. We've been open to customers for half an hour now. At ten-thirty a two-hours' bargain sale of blouses, sashes, and ladies' fancy neckwear opens on the first floor. That's yours. You must be in the square more than half an hour before the sale begins to see stock and learn your job."

| | 83

He eyed her sharply to see if she were "fazed." But Win had the feeling that a "stiff upper lip" was needed for the honour of England and the pluck of its womanhood. She remembered one of the stories she had loved best as a child—the story of the task Venus set for Psyche before she could be worthy of Cupid, the lover whose wings she had burned with a drop of oil from her lamp. Now the girl, grown out of childhood, understood how Psyche had felt when told to count the grains of wheat in Venus's granary within a certain time limit.

"Well, anyhow, Psyche didn't ask questions, and I won't," she said to herself. "The kind ants came and told her things: maybe the sardines will come to me."

Looking almost preternaturally intelligent and pleased with life, Win accepted the key and check-book, and learned with a shock that, as one of Peter Rolls's hands she was No. 2884.

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