- CHAPTER IX THE TEST OF CHARACTER
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THE TEST OF CHARACTER
THE sardine's ears must have been sharp, for although the lion-tamer was between her and Win (like a thick chunk of ham in a thin sandwich) she had heard something of the conversation at the superintendent's window.
"Try the basement bargain counters for your dress; you'll get it cheaper," she flung after the tall Effect in a shrill whisper as the newly engaged hand flashed by.
There wasn't a second, or even half a second to lose, yet Win slackened her pace to say "Thank you. I do hope we shall meet again."
Even the lion-tamer threw her a look, though already he had taken his turn at the window; but Win did not see the admiring glance. She was flying down the stairs she had come up so slowly and did not pause for breath until she was in the basement. There it was so crowded and so hot, though the store had been open to customers not quite an hour, that there seemed little air to breathe, even had there been time to breathe it.
Win could see no means of ventilation in the immense room, which was brightly and crudely lit by pulsing white globes of electricity. There were no partitions to divide one department from another, and it seemed as if samples of every article in the world were being sold on these rows upon rows of heaped-up tables.
Taking her for a customer, a floor-walker saved the bewildered girl from wasting more than a minute of her | | 85 valuable time. The thermometer of his manner fell a degree when he learned that she was an employee; nevertheless he directed her to the bargain counter where black dress-skirts were being sold. There was another near by which offered black silk and satin blouses. The man asked if she had been told that extra hands, if on probation, must give money down for anything above the first week's wage, and looked impressed when the tall girl answered that she preferred to pay cash for the whole.
"Princess queen!" he murmured sotto voce, and Win might have had the privilege of exchanging a smile with him on the strength of the joke, but thought it wiser not to have heard.
Luckily black skirts and blouses were not the craze of the moment. Women were besieging a beehive of corsets and a hotbed of petticoats reduced (so said huge red letters overhead) to one-third of their original price. In less than five minutes Win had secured a costume with the right measurements, and for the two portions of which it consisted had paid exactly one week's salary.
With an unwrapped parcel rolled under one arm, she battled her way back to the staircase she had descended (not daring to squeeze her unworthy body into a crowded elevator) and toiled up to the eighth floor. There, she had been told, were dressing-rooms as well as lockers; a rest-room (converted into a schoolroom from the hour of eight until ten), and the restaurant for women employees.
Lightning-change act first! Black Effect to take the place of brown, a rush for the dressing-room, vague, impression of near-marble basins and rows of mirrors; tall, slim girl in front of one, quite the proper "saleslady" air in new, six-dollar black skirt and silk blouse lightened with sewed-in frills of white, fit not noticeably | | 86 bad; dash along corridor again for locker-room, but sudden wavering pause at sight of confused group, half-fainting girl in black being handed over to capped and aproned nurse by two youths at an open door, glimpse of iron bedsteads etched in black against varnished white wall, door shut with slap; youths marching light-heartedly away, keeping time to the subdued whistle of "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee."
Girls sometimes fainted here, then, before ten o'clock in the morning! And quite a matter of course to shed them in the hospital room, otherwise one wouldn't try one's tango steps going away. But never mind; laugh first, or the world will! Life easier for Peter Rolls's hands as well as other people if they can live it in ragtime. Your turn to fall to-day. Mine to-morrow. "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee!" And whatever you may think, don't lose a minute.
Winifred did not. Perhaps she, too, was beginning to think in rag-time. She was telling her number to the doorkeeper of the locker-room as the slap of the hospital door ceased to vibrate through the long corridor on the eighth story.
The locker-room had countless rows of narrow cells with iron gratings for doors; and the gimlet gaze of two stalwart young females pierced each newcomer. It was their business to see that Peter Rolls's hands did not pilfer each other's belongings. The gimlet eyes must note the outdoor clothing each girl wore on arrival in order to be sure that she did not go forth at evening clad in the property of a comrade. Being paid to cultivate suspicion had soured the guardian angels' tempers. One had a novel by Laura Jean Libbey, the other an old-fashioned tale by Mary J. Holmes to while away odd minutes of leisure; but it appealed to the imagination of neither that any or all of the girls flitting in and out might be eligible heroines for their | | 87 favourite authors, stolen at birth from parent millionaires, qualifying through pathetic struggles with poverty to become the brides of junior millionaires, or perhaps, to win an earl or duke.
All the regularly engaged hands had long ago shut up their hats and cloaks in prison and gone about their business. It was only the extras who were arriving at this late hour to show their numbers and claim their lockers. There were comparatively few amateurs. Most of the girls had had shop experience, but greenhorns betrayed ignorance as they entered. To them, shortly and succinctly, were explained the rules: the system of "stubs" dealt out to newcomers as they gave their numbers and had lockers assigned them—stubs to be religiously kept for the protection of property from false claimants; the working of a slot-machine, in which must be slipped a card and the moment of the morning and midday arrival thus recorded with ruthless exactitude (twenty-five cents docked off your pay if you were late), and other odds and ends of routine information, such as the hours at which lockers might or might not be opened without the presentation of special passes.
As Win fitted her key into the grated door which would in future pertain to No. 2884, into the locker-room bounced the sardine.
"Hello, Lady Ermyntrude!" said she. "I thought I'd pick you up some place. Just a jiffy, and we can skip to the schoolroom together, if your ladyship pleases."
"I am glad!" said Win, and as they went out side by side she ventured to add: "Please do tell me why you call me Lady Ermyntrude. I hope I'm not like anything so awful as that?"
"Oh, there's always a Lady Ermyntrude in every English book you read, and you look as if you'd walked | | 88 out of one. I don't know why, but you do. I kind of like you, though."
"So do I you," said Win, but did not tell her that she was a sardine. This might be a worse epithet in a foreign language even than Lady Ermyntrude.
"I'm for the toy department. What are you?" rapped out the clear little voice that matched the clear little personality—a personality which, at the top of its pompadour, did not reach the tip of Win's ear.
"Mine is called a two-hour bargain sale——"
"Heaven help you! Basement?"
"No, ground floor."
"Thank your stars. That's a cut above. Most amatoors start in the basement bargain sales. If they live through the first day of that—well! But you're all right. You've got the look of the ones who win."
"That's my name—'Win'—Winifred Child."
"If you ain't the Champion Giant Kid! I'm Sadie Kirk. Here's the schoolroom. When it ain't that it calls itself the rest-room, you know. I'm here only because there's a little difference in Rolls's check system from Bingel's, where I worked till the grippe laid me low and my place was filled. I thought I'd try the Hands for a change, though they say it's the limit and down the other side. So me for the school! We'll sit together, and if I can help you I will."
"You're a dear," whispered Win.
"You're another. Go there yourself," was the swift retort.
The rest-room was really very nice, if there were ever a chance to rest in it—which, Miss Kirk whispered, was not likely to be the case. There were wall bookshelves with glass doors, a few oak-framed engravings with a pale-green "distempered " background, several chintz-covered sofas with cushions, and plenty of easy chairs.
On small tables lay very back numbers of illustrated | | 89 papers and magazines. The high windows had green curtains which softened their glare and (said Sadie) prevented dust from showing. The brown-painted floor had decorative intervals of rugs, like flowery oases. Altogether the room would have been an excellent "show place" if any influential, interfering millionairess began stirring up public interest in "conditions of shop-girl life."
One end wall of the long, narrow room was almost entirely covered by an immense blackboard, supposed to represent a check-book. In front of this stood a pale young man with a timid air, who coughed and cleared his throat a good deal as he explained to a group of girls Peter Rolls's specially simplified, modernly improved system of adding up the prices of purchased "goods" in the quickest and most scientific manner. Win listened intently, easily catching the idea, but wondering if she should get "rattled" when she had to put it into practice in the coming "two-hour bargain sale." Miss Kirk, however, soon saw that the difference between this and other systems was not complicated enough to trouble her, and let her wits wander from one subject to another.
"That's a salesman teaching," she whispered up to her tall protégée. "He's new to the job, I guess, and scared of us guyls; but I bet he bullies men when he gets the chance! He'll tuyn out another Father."
Win, not having forgotten her curiosity concerning the red-haired girl's mysterious murmur to the superintendent, longed to question the sardine, who had the air of knowing everything she ought and ought not to know. But the newcomer could not afford to lose a word that dropped from the nervous teacher's lips. "Do tell me about it later," she pleaded. "I must listen to this."
"All right. Are you lunching in or out?"| | 90
"Oh, in, I suppose."
"So will I, then, though I hear it's filthy and the grab vile. We'll try and make a date."
Win dared not answer. With difficulty she caught the last part of the lecture. Then her fifteen minutes of schooling were over and the real battle of life as one of Peter Rolls's hands was to begin.
No time for the luxury of luncheon appointments. The girls must meet or not, as luck ordained. The toy department was on the sixth floor, so the parting came almost at once, and Win went down to meet her fate alone.
A floor-walker or "aisle manager" showed her the place where the "great two-hour bargain sale of coloured blouses, sashes, and ladies' fancy neckwear" was advertised to begin at ten thirty. As he steered the girl through the crowd he looked at her with interest, and she would have looked with interest at him could she have done so without his knowing it. She had vaguely heard that shop-walkers in England could make or break the salespeople. Probably floor-walkers in America were the same, or more powerful, because everybody in this free country who had any power at all seemed to have more than he could possibly have anywhere else.
This man was extremely handsome, she saw in the one quick, veiled glance which can tell a girl as much as a boy is able to take in with a long stare. He was tall and dark and clean-shaven, with polished black hair like a jet helmet, and brown eyes. Few princes could hope to be as well-dressed, and if he had been an actor, only to see his shoulders would have made a matinee girl long to lay her head upon one. Why wasn't he an actor, then, at many dollars a week, instead of a floorwalker at a few? It must be that his fairy godmother had forgotten to endow him with some essential talent.| | 91
Seeing that he looked at her sympathetically with his rather sad dark eyes, Win ventured with all respect to beg a little enlightenment as to a two-hour bargain sale.
"It means that certain things are marked down for two hours," he explained, "and after that anything left of the lot goes up to the old price again. It's a mighty hard test for one who's new to the whole business. The superintendent, Mr. Meggison, has put you onto a pretty stiff thing," he added. And then again, after an instant's pause: "You're going to land in a wasps' nest over there. There's Some electricity in the atmosphere this morning. But keep your head and you'll be all right."
They came within sight of a hollow square formed by four long counters. Above it was a placard with red and black lettering which announced the sale to begin at half-past ten; everything to be sold at bargain price till twelve-thirty. Within were six saleswomen, two for each side of the square; and the question flashed through Win's head: Why had she been imported to make an odd number? It was an exciting question, taken in connection with the floor-walker's warning.
Until sale-time these counters were out of the congested region; and the six saleswomen were taking advantage of the lull before the storm to put finishing touches on the arrangement of the stock. The instant that Win was inside the square it was as if she had been suddenly swallowed up in a thunder-cloud. The head saleswoman (she must be that, Win thought, judging from the attention paid her by the rest) was in a black rage; a beautiful Jewess, older than the others and growing overplump, but magnificently browed, and hardly thirty yet.
"It's damnable!" she panted, full breast heaving, | | 92 throat swelling with stifled sobs, "to put this onto me! Anybody with half an eye can see through the trick. The Queen of England couldn't get rid of these nasty rags at a charity bazaar."
She went on without noticing the newcomer, except to flash across Win's face and figure a lightning, Judith glance which seemed to pitch a creature unknown and unwanted into the bottomless pit where all was vile. Her satin-smooth olive hands, with brilliantly polished coral nails, trembled as, gesticulating, she waved them over the stock which littered the four counters. She seemed to be throwing her curse upon blouses, sashes, and ladies' neckwear; and had she been a witch, with power of casting spells, the masses of silk and satin would have burst into coloured flame.
"Oh, Miss Stein, don't feel that way about it," pleaded a thin girl who looked utterly bloodless. "The things are marked down so low maybe they'll go off."
"Look at them—look at them!" broke out the Jewess. "Is there anything you'd take for a present, one of you? They might as well have sent me to the basement and be done with it. But I'll show him, and her, too, how much I care before the day's out."
So fierce was the splendid creature's emotion that Win felt the hot contagion of it. What had happened she did not know, though evidently the others did, and sympathized, or pretended to. But even she, a stranger, could spring at a conclusion.
Miss Stein was called upon to sell things which she thought no customers would buy. Somebody in power had put her in this position, out of spite, to get her into trouble. There was another woman in the case. There must be jealousy. This tigerish Judith was suffering as keenly as a human creature could suffer, and all because of some blouses, some sashes, and ladies' fancy | | 93 neckwear, which certainly had an unattractive appearance as they lay on the counters in confused heaps.
"He says, 'It's up to you, Miss Stein!'" the quivering voice jerked out in bitter mimicry. "Up to me, indeed! And he gives me this rag-bag!"
"It'll be nuts to her if you're downed," remarked a girl with a round, pink face.
"Don't you think I know it?" Miss Stein demanded fiercely. Her eyes filled with tears, which she angrily dried with a very dirty handkerchief that looked strangely out of keeping in the manicured hands. "There's nothing to do, or I'd do it—except to give him a piece of my mind and throw up the job before they have the chance to fire me."
"You wouldn't—just at this time!" cried the anæmic girl.
"Wouldn't I? You'll see. I don't care a tinker's curse what becomes of me after to-day."
Win's ears were burning as if they had been tweaked. The minutes were passing. She could ask no help, no information concerning her duties. If she put a question as to what she was to do she would be snubbed, or worse. Could the far-away and almost omnipotent Mr. Meggison have had secret knowledge of this lion's den into which he had thrown her? He had said the bargain square and the two-hours' sale would be a test of character. At this rate, she would fail ignominiously, and she did not want to fail. But neither did she want the beautiful Jewess to fail. Her anxiety was not all selfish. "A test of character!" Was there nothing, nothing she could do for her own and the general good?
Suddenly her spirit flew back to the ship. Peter Rolls's face came before her. She saw his good blue eyes. She heard him say: "If ever I can help——"
How odd! Why should she have thought of him then? And no one could help, least of all he, who had | | 94 probably forgotten all about her by this time, Miss Rolls having spoiled his horrid, deceitful game. She must help herself. Yet it was just as if Peter had come and suggested an idea—really quite a good idea, if only she had the courage to interrupt Miss Stein.
She and Peter had chatted one night on B deck about the Russian dancers and Leon Bakst's designs. She had lectured Peter on the amazing beauty of strangely combined colours, mixtures which would not have been tolerated before the "Russian craze." Now Peter seemed to be reminding her of what she had said then, a silly little boast she had made, that with "nothing but a few rags and a Bakst inspiration" she could put together a gorgeous costume for a fancy-dress ball.
"When you want to set up for a rival to Nadine, I'll back you," Peter had retorted, and they had both laughed.
Now, with the immense but impersonal "backing" of Peter Rolls senior's great shop, she had the Bakst inspiration and the tingling ambition to set up (in a very small way) as a rival to Nadine.
"I beg your pardon," she stammered to Miss Stein, and hastened on as a fierce, astonished look was fastened upon her from under a black cloud of stormy brow. "I—I hope you'll excuse my interrupting, but I've been a model of Nadine's, and—and I have an idea, if you'll allow me—I mean, you don't seem to like these things we have to sell. I believe we could make something of them if we hurried."
All through she had the feeling that if she could not hold Miss Stein's eyes until she had compelled interest hope was lost. She put her whole self into the effort to hold the eyes, and she held them, talking fast, pouring the magnetic force of her enthusiasm into the angry, unhappy soul of the other.
"What do you mean?" asked Miss Stein, abruptly | | 95 taking the sharp, judicial air of the business woman. Half resentful, half contemptuous, she could not afford to let slip the shadow of a chance.
"I'll show you, if I may," said Win.
She, the outsider, the intruder, suddenly dominated the situation. The others, even Miss Stein herself, gave way before the Effect in black as it came close to one of the counters and with quick, decided touches began manipulating those blouses, sashes, and ladies' fancy neckwear which the Queen of England could not sell at a charity bazaar.
A box of steel pins of assorted sizes lay on a cleared corner of the counter which Win had approached. It had been brought, perhaps, for the pinning of labels onto the newly repriced stock. Win took a purple sash and draped it round the waist-line of a dull-looking, sky-blue blouse. Quickly the draping was coaxed into shape and firmly held with pins. Then under the collar was fastened a crimson bow ("ladies' fancy neckwear")! which had been hideous in itself, but suddenly became beautiful as a butterfly alighting on a flower.
"My!" exclaimed the anaemic girl, and glanced cautiously from under her eyelids to see whether approval or disgust were the popular line to take.
But Miss Stein—still resentful, and now beginning to be jealous of a green hand's originality and daring taste—was not an Oriental for nothing. She didn't possess the initiative ability of a designer, but she could appreciate the crashing music of gorgeous colours met together on the right notes. Love of colour was in her Jewish blood, and she was a shrewd business woman also, animated with too vital a selfishness to let any opportunity of advancement go. She seized the new girl's idea at a glance, realized its value and its possible meaning for herself.
"That's queer, but it's smart," she pronounced, and | | 96 five anxious faces brightened. "I'd 'a' thought o' that if I hadn't been so awful worried; my head feels stuffed full o' wadding. I don't seem to have room for two ideas. Me and you can tell the guyls what to do, and they'll do it. See here, as fast as we get those things fixed we'll hang 'em up on the line and make a show. Gee! they'll draw the dames a mile off, just out of curiosity and nothing else."
"And when we get them we'll get their money, too," Win prophesied cheerfully. "We'll christen these things Pavlova Russian Sash-Blouses, and say it's the latest dodge only to pin them together so purchasers can change the drapery to fit their figures. When we've sold all we can finish before ten-thirty we'll make a point of pinning on drapery and neckties in the customers' presence to suit their taste. I can undertake that part, if you like."
"You do think you're some girl, don't you?" was Miss Stein's only comment. But Win saw that she meant to accept the scheme and" work it for all it was worth."
A light of hope and the excitement of battle shone down the dull flame of anger in her eyes. There was no gleam of gratitude there, and if Win had wanted it she would have been disappointed; but just at this moment she wanted nothing on earth save to push that beautiful Jewess to a triumph over "him and her " and to make the two-hour sale of Pavlova Russian Sash-Blouses a frantic, furious success.
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