- CHAPTER X PETER ROLLS'S LITTLE WAYS
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PETER ROLLS'S LITTLE WAYS
SOMETHING strange had happened in the ground-floor bargain square. The wasps' nest had suddenly turned into a beehive. The buzz of rage had lulled to the hum of industry. Fred Thorpe, the "aisle manager," was blessed with the tact which only some secret sympathy or great natural kindness can put into a man; and it had kept him at a distance from Miss Stein that morning. He knew the inner history of that particular bargain sale, and there were reasons why he should understand with peculiar acuteness the humiliation she had been doomed to endure. His presence on the scene would make matters worse, and he had obliterated himself as much as possible.
Nevertheless he saw all that went on in that direction, and the sudden and remarkable change which took place immediately after the tall English girl's arrival amazed him. He did not know what to make of it, but it was so evidently a change for the better, and the time before the sale was so short, that he decided to sink conventions and let the saleswomen alone.
The floor-walker had plenty of other things to keep him busy, but his sub-self eyed the strenuous, mysterious preparations for the coming two-hour sale of blouses, sashes, and ladies' fancy neckwear. Five minutes ago the unfortunate stock (which finished the latest chapter of Stein-Horrocks-Westlake-Thorpe inner history) had lain in neglected heaps on the four counters which | | 98 walled in the hollow square. Miss Stein and her five companions had confined their energies to examining labels, and that in a perfunctory manner, a mere cloak for feverish whisperings. The sale was doomed to failure—had been doomed from the moment that Mr. Horrocks, the manager of the department (who was also a sub-buyer) had "dumped" a disastrous purchase from a bankrupt sale onto the girl whom every one knew he had jilted for Miss Westlake. There was far more in it than that; an intricate intrigue of shop life. But so much at least was common property in the department; and the elevation of Miss Westlake, the humiliation of Miss Stein could be seen by all, for Miss Westlake close by was selling the most entrancing new fichus which had begun the day with a succès fou.
No use advising Miss Stein to buck up and do her best. Anything Fred Thorpe could say on the subject would be bitterly misconstrued. He realized that her conception of the part to play was to make the worst of things instead of the best and snatch what satisfaction she could from a flare-up. That was what Horrocks wanted, of course, but she was past caring, or so it seemed until the sudden change took place after the appearance of the new girl.
Soon Thorpe began to understand the scheme. With an eye for colour and a swiftness of touch that was almost incredible, unsympathetic blouses were changed into daring yet dainty "confections." As fast as the girls finished draping the sashes and pinning on fantastically knotted ties of contrasted colours they hung up the most attractive of their creations on lines above the counters which had been meagrely furnished forth with a few stringy, fringed sashes. While some girls worked like demons in transforming "stock," others arranged it on the lines and counters. Complete "Pavlovas" only were displayed in prominent places. Such things | | 99 as could not be ready in time for the sale opening were grouped as prettily as possible, according to colour schemes, on the two less conspicuous of the four counters—those which faced away from the more frequently occupied avenues of approach.
This was doubtless Miss Stein's experienced contribution to the plan of battle; but, clever saleswoman as she was, when brain and heart were cool, Thorpe realized that all credit for originating the scheme should be given to the new girl. "She's a live wire," he said to himself, though his deepest sympathies were for Miss Stein. And he saw the "smartness" of Mr. Meggison in "spotting" No. 2884 for this place.
Meggison was, of course, "onto" the situation, for the whole secret of the man's sudden rise lay in his capacity for knowing and keeping track of every current and undercurrent of life in each department. With Miss Stein at their head, her five assistants would not put the energy of one into disposing of the hated stock, therefore Meggison had sent an "extra." He had chosen a new girl because she would not "take sides," and a girl who looked as if she might hold her own against odds, because she would need all her "ginger" if she were to "make good." Besides, Thorpe said to himself, Meggison might have his eye upon her, perhaps, as something out of the common run of extras merely hired for the holidays, and intend to test her.
Somehow all the department managers and floorwalkers and head salesmen smiled dryly when they thought of Meggison (who had lately been promoted) in connection with any girl. They seldom put into words what lay behind the smile, for you never knew who might be a spy—a "sneak" or a "quiz." But all the men knew his one laughable weakness, and would rather get hold of a " ample" of it than be treated to a champagne dinner at the Waldorf.| | 100
Long before half-past ten women who wanted blouses and had seen the newspaper advertisements of the two-hour bargain sale began to inquire where it would be held. Thorpe was constantly obliged to direct them, and watching them group where they could see the decorations of the square, his ears were sharpened for comments.
The quick minds of American women soon caught the idea which the colour arrangement conveyed. "Why, it's like the things the Russian dancers wear!" said one.
"It's the newest trick I've seen yet," said another.
Thorpe could not help thinking of the difference between these exclamations and those he had expected to hear when the advertised blouses first burst on the beholders' eyes.
At ten-thirty to the second the waiting women pounced. Win's nerve failed her for an instant in the hot forefront of her first battle, but she caught at Miss Kirk's remembered words: "You've got the look of those who win," and the floor-walker's advice: "Keep your head and you'll be all right." She mustn't be a coward. She mustn't fall at her first shot.
Soon she realized that she need expect no help from Miss Stein or the five satellites who took their cue from her. The Russian inspiration had happened to be acceptable, but she was to be shown that she mustn't take advantage of her start. The question or two she began to ask had for an answer: "Good Lord, don't bother"me! "If you can't see for yourself, what are your eyes for?" or "This ain't the schoolroom, I don't think!"
Maybe, she told herself, the girls were not always like this. To-day they were desperate, and no wonder. She mustn't mind a few snubs. They hardly knew what they were saying. The check-book was more formidable than it had seemed on the blackboard, and | | 101 she envied the others their quick, almost mechanical way of adding and subtracting. Would she ever be like that? Meanwhile the thing was to keep the entries in her check-book correct.
She was saved, perhaps, by the need which soon arose for one girl to put in shape for customers the blouses, sashes, and ties which had not been pinned together. Just as her brain began to reel over a difficult calculation which must be made in a clamouring hurry Miss Stein commanded a change of work.
"As soon as you're through with this customer," was the order.
Win took time to draw breath and finished the sum correctly. "I should have gone flump over the next!" she thought, with a thankful sigh, for she was in her element choosing colours and draping sashes to suit customers' "styles." Miss Stein grudged her the distinction, but granted it for the sake of business. If the girl showed signs of "uppishness" when the sale was over she should soon be made to see that it wouldn't pay.
Even as it was, Win used up one whole check-book, containing fifty order forms, and also her own vitality. She had no time to realize how tired she was until half-past twelve brought the sale to an end. Even then a thing that happened pushed away thought of self for a few more moments.
Walking beside Mr. Thorpe, the aisle manager, came a big, auburn-haired, red-moustached man of thirty-three or four, with a particularly pleasant, smiling face of florid colour and excitable blue eyes. He looked boyishly obstinate, and yet, Win thought, as if he might be easy to "get round," unless some prejudice kept him firm. She would not have thought of him at all had not the flush which suddenly swept over Miss Stein's face suggested that this was "he."| | 102
Win was instantly sure that here was the man in the case; now, cherchez la femme! And she had not to search far.
The two men did not come to the bargain square, but he of the moustache slowed down to throw a glance of intense interest at the denuded counters and the customers who lingered, though the sale was ended, to buy "Pavlovas" at their suddenly augmented price. He spoke to the floor-walker, and got some answer which Miss Stein would evidently have given at least a week out of her life to hear. Then the pair passed on, but only to pause again fully—too fully—in sight of all eyes in the hollow square.
The red-moustached man parted company with his companion and went straight to a counter where lace scarfs and fichus and wonderful boudoir caps were achieving a brilliant success. Instantly a fairy-like brunette with cherry lips and a bewitching turned-up nose came forward with a sweet meekness that was the subtlest kind of coquetry. Whatever he had to say was said in a second or two, and the girl answered as quickly. But she went back to work with a conscious look which would to any watching woman announce that she considered the man her property.
"Little pig!" Win said to herself. "She's purring with joy because Miss Stein saw. (Do pigs purr?) Anyhow, I am glad we've made a success. That must be some comfort! Why, at the Hands it's like a big theatre with a lot of different stages, where the curtains go up unexpectedly and give you a glimpse of an act."
But exciting as the plays were, the one in which she herself had a part began to seem very long drawn out when the first wild rush of the two-hour act was over. Miss Stein, without a word of appreciation to the new recruit who had saved the day, went off with the anaemic girl to lunch. Two others left at the same time, | | 103 and only a couple of the old guard remained to hold the fort with Win. Three were quite enough, however, to cope with the diminished trade. Customers as well as saleswomen were thinking of food; and as the crowd in the shopping centres of the great store thinned perceptibly, no doubt it thickened to the darkening of the air in the famous Pompeian restaurant on the top floor.
Most of the best "confections" in the hollow square were sold, and Win was aware, as interest slackened, that she felt "rather like a hollow square" herself.
There was a little "flap" chair turned up against each of the four counters, and at ebb-tide of custom Win looked at them wistfully.
"I suppose we're allowed to sit down for a minute when there's nothing to do?" she inquired of a plump, dull-eyed girl who was furtively polishing the nails of one hand with the ball of her other palm.
"We're legally allowed to, if that's what you mean," replied the other. "But we're not encouraged to. I wouldn't, my first day, anyways, if I was you."
"Thank you very much," said Winifred. "It's good of you to tell me things. I won't sit down, since you advise me not. But it is hard, standing up so long, especially after such a rush as we've had, isn't it?"
"Oh, if you think this is hard!" echoed the plump girl, Miss Jones. (Win noticed that the saleswomen called each other by name, though officially they were numbers.) "You ain't bin three hours yet. Wait and see how you feel to-night when ten o'clock comes."
"Ten o'clock!" gasped Win. "I thought we closed at six."
"We're supposed to shut up then, but folks won't go these busy weeks. They can't be chased out. And we have to stay hours after they have gone, putting away stock and—oh, shucks of things. Little do the | | 104 swell dames care what happens to us once they're outside the doors. I guess they think we cease to exist the minute they don't need us to wait on them."
"I've always heard that rich American women took such an interest in the working—I mean, in us, who work," Win hastily amended.
"Oh, when they're old or sick of their diamonds and their automobiles and men are sick of them, they think it'll be some spree to come and stir us guyls up to strike against our wrongs. But when we've struck it's just about their time for getting sick of us. I got caught that way once when I worked in a candy-box factory. I bet I don't again! See here, I'm kind of sorry for you if you thought the Hands was a party where they asked you to sit down and have afternoon tea. Fred Thorpe, the floor-walker in this depart, is a real good feller, and he'd be glad to give us a rest—a big difference between him and some I've knowed! But he dasn't treat us as white as he'd like. In this show every Jack and Jill is watched from above. There ain't nobody except Father himself das' call his soul his own. If a chap thinks he's safe to do some tiny thing on his own, gee! a brick falls smack on his head. That's one of Peter Rolls's little ways."
Win shivered slightly to hear that name thus used. But Miss Jones was absorbed in her subject.
"Us guyls ain't even supposed to talk to each other, except about business," she went on. "But that's just the one thing they can't stop, and they know they can't, so they have to wink at it. You see, though, the way I keep on folding the goods, or pretending to look for something, every instant, so you'd most think I'd got the St. Vitus's dance? Well, that's because if we just stood with our heads together poor Thorpe would have to come careering over here and inquire what was the | | 105 subject of our earnest conversation. He'd hate it like poison, but he'd do it, all the same, or the feller above would know the reason why."
"I thought he seemed kind and nice—I mean Mr. Thorpe," said Win.
"No use trying to mash him! He's gone on Dora Stein. Say, did you get onto the sale job? I somehow thought you did."
"I saw there was some trouble," Win hesitated.
"Trouble? There's nothing but trouble. Anybody'd think we was asking for it! This blessed depart is upset from way back since the promotions began. Our last superintendent got the sack through his drunken wife coming around the place makin' scenes. And Mr. Meggison was put over another man's head. That made t'other feller so mad he blowed out his brains. 'Twas in the papers, but it got hushed up mighty quick!' The news, not the brains, I mean! Old Saint Peter knows some tricks of hushing up.
"Well, anyways, that set the ball rolling, and our head salesman was jumped up to be department manager and buyer right over Thorpe's head. 'Twas too much for him, and he gave Dora Stein the toss. Now he wants her out of his shine, and he dumped some jay stuff he bought in a bankrupt sale on her to get rid of. The head buyer give him beans for bein' fooled over a snide lot of trash like that, so what he does is to visit it on us. He hoped Dora'd get mad and clear out so he wouldn't see her lamps on him every time he walked past to give Miss Westlake, his new guyl, the glad eye. But I guess now Miss Stein's made such a big success where he hoped she'd fail, she'll stay pat."
As Miss Jones finished her story she watched Win's face to see if it changed, but there was no sign that the newcomer grudged Miss Stein the credit. She was actually smiling.| | 106
"There's something queer about that girl," Miss Jones presently murmured to Miss McGrath at the other end of the square, as Win was called upon to serve a lady who had been told at luncheon about the Pavlovas. "She ain't natural. What'll you bet she's a spy? I'm goin' to ask Miss Stein what she thinks."
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