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 11 chapter 27 >>

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PETER ROLLS senior and Peter junior were both unhappy in vastly different ways. One difference was that Peter junior knew he was unhappy and suspected why. Peter senior had no idea that what he suffered from was unhappiness. He thought that it was indigestion, and he supposed that feeling as he felt was the normal state of men passing beyond middle age. When you were growing old you could not expect to keep much zest or personal interest in life or to enjoy things, so he had always been told; and dully, resignedly, he believed what "they" said.

If anyone had told him that he was a miserable man he would have been angry, and also surprised. Why the dickens should he be miserable? He considered himself one of the most successful men in New York, and his greatest pleasure was in recalling his successes, step by step, from the time before he got his foot on the first rung of the ladder all the way up to the top.

Often he lay awake at night pondering on those first days and first ambitions. If he began to think of them when he went to bed it was fatal. He became so pleasantly excited, and the past built itself up so realistically all about him, that he could not go to sleep for hours. What a sensational "bed book" is to some tired brains that was his past to the head of the Hands. Besides, he had everything in the world that he or anybody else | | 118 (it seemed to him) could possibly want. Perhaps it was a little irritating when you could have all you wanted not to know what to want. But, he consoled himself, that must be so with all rich people. The best thing was not to think about it.

He was convinced that he loved Mother as dearly as ever a husband had loved a wife. They were uncomfortable together, but wretched apart. That was marriage. There was nothing more in it.

They hadn't much to say to each other. But you never saw husbands and wives chatting together like love-birds after the honeymoon. You wanted a bright-cheeked, laughing girl, and you got her. If you were faithful to each other, and didn't have rows, it was an ideal match, especially if there were children.

Peter Rolls was very fond of his children. When they were little they had been the joy of his life; the thought of them had been the only one that warmed his heart and gave him almost superhuman energy to take the future by the horns like a bull and force a ring through its bleeding nose that it might be ready for them to ride when they grew up.

Now they were grown up, and they were riding; and it was natural that the fire of the heart should have calmed. He was proud of the pair, very proud. Pete (no he mustn't call him by that name. Ena didn't like it, said it sounded common) Peter—or Petro, if one preferred—was a gentleman, and made a good show for every dollar that had been spent on him. Put him with an Astor or a Livingston and you couldn't tell the difference!

Once, a long time ago, old Peter had dreamed of a young Peter succeeding him in the business; but Ena had made him see what a foolish dream that was—foolish and inconsistent, too—because, what was the good of slaving to satisfy your ambition, and then, when you | | 119 reached the goal, instead of profiting by what you'd got, ordering your heir down to the level you'd worked to leave behind?

Peter senior had entirely come round to Ena's view, and instead of regretting that Peter junior hadn't in him the making of a hard-boiled man of business who'll do anything to succeed, Father stopped Peter abruptly whenever he showed an inconvenient sign of interest in the Hands and what went on under the glitter of their rings. Nor was Peter's interest of the right kind. It was not what Peter senior called practical.

Ena, now! There was a girl to be proud of. Father was so proud that pride of his splendid daughter had frozen out or covered with ashes the glow which used to fill his heart at the thought of her. But pride was the right thing! That was what he had worked for: to make of his children a man and woman to be proud of when the top stone was on his pile.

Ena was more than a lady. She was an orchid, a princess. She ruled Father with her little finger—a beautifully manicured, rose-and-white finger, such as he had hardly seen when he was young. There was so much of himself in Ena that Peter yielded to her mandates as to the inarticulate cry of his own soul translated into words. The princess in whose veins his blood ran must understand what he ought to want better than he himself could understand.

She said: What was the fun of having money if you couldn't know all the best people everywhere, and be of them as well as merely among them? She began saying this even before she came home "for good" from school. It was a school for millionaires' daughters, and the daughters of other millionaires had showed her the difference between her father and theirs, oil magnates and steel and railway magnates who magnated on their ancestors' fortunes made in land or skins of animals.

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Nothing really worth having—nothing really worth Father's years of hard work—could come to them as a family until Peter Rolls ceased to identify himself personally with the Hands, Ena had pleaded, and at last the head of the establishment engaged an official "understudy" to represent him every day in the gorgeously furnished office which had seemed to old Peter what the body is to the soul.

Rolls senior and Henry Croft, the man he appointed as dictator, corresponded daily, by letter and telephone, but Peter Rolls himself was not supposed to enter the great commercial village he had brought together under one roof. Ena was able to say to anyone rude enough to ask, or to those she suspected of indiscreet curiosity, "Father never goes near the place. He's tired of business, and, luckily, he doesn't need to bother."

She would not much have cared whether the statement were true or not if she were sure that the carefully careless sounding words were believed. But it would have been distressing to have anyone say: "Ena Rolls pretends that her father doesn't work in the shop any more, but I know for a fact that he goes every day." So it comforted her to feel sure that her arguments had really impressed Father and that he never did go to the Hands unless, perhaps, twice a year or so for important meetings. It pleased her that he had joined a rich club in New York which had enough "swell" members to make it pleasant for her to remark casually, "Father belongs to the Gotham."

When Father went to New York in the evening, as he often did, not returning to Sea Gull Manor till late, and sometimes staying away all night, he used to say as an excuse to Mother or Ena, "I'm going to the club." After a while it was taken for granted, and he made no excuse at all. But if Ena had known the mystery of those late evenings she would have been struck with fear | | 121 —the fear which comes of finding out that those we think we know best are strangers to us.

Of all the sad millionaires of New York who pin together the pages of certain mysterious life-chapters not to be read by eyes at home, perhaps no other had a mystery like that of Peter Rolls. It was now the one thing that he intensely enjoyed; but it was a guilty, furtive enjoyment which made a nervous wreck of him and ruined a stomach once capable of salvation.

Peter junior had never been entirely happy since he left Yale at twenty-three. It was only then that he began to look life in the face and see the freckles on its complexion. The minute he saw them on that countenance which should be so beautiful he wanted to help in some way to rub them off. To help—to help! That was the great thing.

He didn't care much for business, but he felt that, being Peter Rolls's only son, it was his duty to care. He imagined Father deeply hurt at the indifference of his two children to that which had been his life—hurt, but hiding the wound with proud reserve. So Peter junior determined to sacrifice himself. He offered to go into the shop, to begin at the bottom if Father wished, and in learning all there was to learn, gradually work to a place where he could be a staff to lean upon.

It was in the "library" that they had this talk—an immense and appalling room, all very new oak panelling and very new, uniform sets of volumes bound in red leather and gold, with crests and book-plates, bleakly glittering behind glass doors. Peter senior tried to kill time there, because a library seemed to his daughter the right background for a father, and Peter junior, who had saved Mother's poor old furniture for his own rooms, found it singularly difficult to open his heart between walls that smelled of money and newness. However, he did his best to blunder out the offer of | | 122 himself, while the chill gleam in his father's eyes (so remarkably like that of the bookcase glass doors) made him feel, as he went on, that he must have begun all wrong.

"So you don't trust your own father?" was the answer he got when he stopped, as one might be stopped short by the sharp edge of a marble mantelpiece when trying to find the way across a dark room.

"Don't—trust you?" stammered Peter, sure now that he was a fool not to understand, not to have made his father understand.

"You think the old man's got past running his own business, and if you don't want your money to go to the dogs you must look after it yourself."

"Good Heavens, no!" Peter broke out. "You can't dream that any such thought entered my mind! I—why, father, I'd rather die than have you believe that of me."

"Prove I'm wrong, then," said the other dryly, pulling, as was his habit, a thin, grizzled beard with thin, sallow fingers. "You can do it easy enough."

"How? Only tell me."

"By turning your attention to other things, my boy. Leave me alone to manage what I know how to manage. You let me do it my own way, without shoving in your oar, and don't you listen to what any of your highbrow friends say about me and my methods behind my back."

"As if I would!"

"Well, I wasn't sure. You go with a set of raw boys who think they know better than their fathers how to run creation; and now and then you blow off some of those soap-bubble ideas in your conversation. I've been kind of hurt once in a while, though I didn't let it out. But now we're on the subject I will say: if you've got faith in the old man, hands off the Hands!"

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"That settles it, father," returned Peter heavily. "I never meant to hinder, only to help if I could. From now on the watchword is,' hands off the Hands!'"

This was a promise, and he kept it scrupulously. But the steady fire in his heart was scattered as a flaming log is broken into many embers by the clumsy stab of a poker. He had no longer a settled aim in life. He saw no niche which he could fill, and felt that the world had no particular use for the second Peter Rolls. The one thing he had longed for as a boy, which did not now in his young manhood appear stale and unprofitable, was a journey round the world and a glimpse of the East. When his father said uneasily: "Why don't you travel, my boy?" Peter answered that perhaps it would be a good thing.

The subject was broached to Mother, and Mother did not object. She had learned long ago, when she was first married to Peter, never to object to anything that he proposed. When she smiled and agreed with every suggestion she was a dear little woman, and so she had spent her existence in being a dear little woman until her hair turned white. With her sunny nature, it had not needed a very great effort; but sometimes, since Peter had begun to grow up, he had dimly fancied a look of wistfulness in her ever-young blue eyes—eyes of a girl gazing out from the round, rosy-apple face of a middle-aged woman.

She was always the same in her ways and manner, if it could be called manner: comfortable and comforting, contented with life as it was, happy in her children, and putting up gently with her husband; but—when you had said good-bye to her you remembered the look which always changed instantly into a smile when it met yours. You remembered, and seemed to see another woman hovering wraith-like behind Mother's plump figure, as she sat contentedly crocheting those | | 124 endless strips of trimming for towels and things; Mother as she might have been if no dominating nature had ringed hers in with an iron fence.

When Peter was up the White Nile, in elephant and lion land, he used suddenly, mysteriously, to see an irrelevant vision of his mother just stretching out plump arms to say good-bye to him, in his own room which he had furnished with the mahogany odds and ends that had started her bridal housekeeping. She had smiled and had not seemed to mind very much his going—not half as much as a hen mother minds its duckling's first dash into water. And yet her eyes——There are some things it hurts and at the same time warms your heart to think of at the other end of the world.

Peter had gone up the White Nile to shoot big game; but when he met it face to face, on a social equality, so to speak, he wondered how he could ever have harboured so monstrously caddish a design. He found the animals he had thought he wanted to kill so much handsomer and more important than himself that he felt like begging the alleged "game's" pardon for calling on it without invitation in its country home (as if he'd been a book-agent) and bowed himself away with only a few photographs to remember it by. While Ena was working up conversations to the point of mentioning "my brother who is such a great shot, you know, and is shooting big game in Africa," Peter's only shots were snap-shots, and he was too stupidly conscientious to atone for his weakness by obtaining elephant tusks and lion skins with coins instead of bullets.

He wished he had saved Egypt and its temples for his honeymoon, in case he should ever find exactly the right girl, for the mystery and wonder made him sad because he had nobody to feel it with him. It was the same in India and all the East, and there were thousands of thoughts imprisoned in his breast (which he hardly | | 125 understood and dared not let escape) by the time he arrived in England to meet Ena.

The thoughts were still struggling in prison when he went on board the Monarchic, but there a light shone fitfully through the keyhole of the cell. It was a beautiful light, almost beautiful enough to be the light Peter had read and dreamed of, which was said never to shine on land or sea. Then, suddenly and surprisingly, it went out. The prison, full of thoughts, was left a place of dark confusion.

This was the inner state of Peter Rolls junior when he arrived at home after his long absence. But outwardly he appeared to be much as usual, and was so nice to the Irish guests that Ena was grateful, though never remorseful. Indeed, she had so much to think about that she almost forgot her little act of diplomacy in eliminating an undesirable sister-in-law.

She was on tenterhooks lest Lord Raygan and his mother and sister should be finding the ménage at Sea Gull Manor "all wrong" and laughing secretly at Father and Mother. If there had been that fear about the dressmaker's model on top of the rest of her anxieties she would have broken down with nervous prostration. But, thanks to her for saving him (without his knowledge), Peter seemed to have got over his silliness and was able to stand by her like a brick.

Lady Raygan, a singularly young-looking, red-faced woman of boyish figure, and with stick-out teeth, was a leading militant suffragette. When she embarked hastily for Queenstown she had just been rescued by her son from the London police. At first she had been too seasick to care that she was being carried past her home and that a series of lectures she had intended giving would be delayed. Now, in America, she had determined to make the best of a bad bargain by sending the fiery cross through the States.

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She stayed in her room and jotted down notes. Also, she conscientiously tried to transform Mrs. Rolls into a suffragette. About most other tilings she was absent-minded; therefore Ena did not waste grey matter in worrying over the impression that Sea Gull Manor was making on Lady Raygan.

It was Rags and Eileen whose observing eyes and sense of humour had to be feared. Eileen, for instance had a little way of saying that anything she considered odd was "too endlessly quaint." Things she admired were "melting." If only Ena had known enough about earls and their families to be sure whether Lord Raygan and Eileen would, in their secret hearts, think the ways of the Rollses endlessly quaint, or melting, she might have been spared sleepless nights. Because the difference between those two adjectives would mean the difference between ecstasy and despair for her. Rags might be poor for an earl, even an Irish earl, but he was hardly the sort to propose to a girl his sister could speak of as "endlessly quaint."

Twelve days after they had arrived at Sea Gull Manor Eileen wrote a somewhat ungrammatical letter to a rich cousin in Dublin who had once refused Rags, in which she said:


I wish you were here to pinch me. Then I would be sure whether I'm asleep or awake. You'll know by the papers (s'pose poor old Rags is worth a paragraph; any-how Mubs is, now she's turned into a suff) how we got carried on in the Monarchic to New York. It won't be the fault of American reporters if you've missed our news! They got at us on the dock. Mubs loved it. Rags didn't.

Well, if you know a thing about us, since we were swept past Queenstown by a giant wave that carried us on its back all the way to America, you know we're staying with a family named Rolls. Rags met Miss Rolls and her | | 127 brother in London. And afterwards they happened to be on board our ship, so we chummed up, and Miss Rolls would give up her melting suite to poor half-dead Mubs and me. What a beast the sea is! I don't know if I shall ever have the courage to go on the disgusting old wet thing again. We came here to stay a fortnight, but it's almost that now, and we couldn't be driven away with a stick.

We're having the time of our lives (I'm learning lots of creamy American slang), and the Rollses are awfully kind. Ena is very nice, when she doesn't try to talk as if she were English, and quite handsome, with fine eyes, though not so good as her brother's. And he—the brother, I mean—is the dearest thing in the shape of a man you ever saw. Not that he's wonderfully handsome or anything, but, as they say over here, he's just IT. I don't know what there is about him, but—well, if I go on, I suppose you'll think I'm being silly.

I don't care; you were only a year older than I am now when you told Rags kindly to go to the dickens. You said he cared only for your money, poor Rags! That wasn't true. But now (I know you won't tell) Ena R. is going for him for all she's worth. Mubs doesn't notice anything about women except their being suffs or not; and I'm supposed to be too young to twig what's going on. I need hardly mention, however, that very little gets past yours truly. I shouldn't wonder if Ena'd bring it off. Rags asks me sometimes in a sheep-faced sort of way what I think of things here, and I would have a joyous laugh with him if it weren't for the brother.

Goodness gracious, but they're rich, these Rollses! I could make a pun about their name and their money, but I won't, because it would be cheap, and nothing is cheap at Sea Gull Manor. You can get a faint idea what the house and the view are like from the hand-painted sketch at the top of this paper on the left of the fat gold crest. This stationery is in all the guests' private sitting-rooms, in case any one wants to make distant friends envious of their surroundings. Mr. Rolls senior told me he kept a tame artist painting these things at a salary of | | 128 ten thousand dollars a year, dinner and luncheon menus thrown in. Ena's idea. She wanted something original and what she wants goes! So says Mr. R.

He's a poor little, yellow shrimp of a man, with dead-black hair where it isn't grey or coming off, and the same kind of beard goats have. His eyes may have been nice when he was young, but nothing like his son Peter's Young Peter is altogether different from old Peter, and he has blue eyes like the quaintest and most melting mother you ever saw.

She does nothing but crochet trimming for sheets and things, world without end, and if you admire it she gives you some. But she was just born to be a mother, and even having her sit crocheting in a room where you are makes you feel good. She has eyes as blue as bluebells, and as young, an apple face with a smile that longs for something it's never known, and any amount of smooth white hair, which she does in just the wrong way, pinched into tight braids. The one thing she won't do for her daughter is to have a maid of her own, and Ena keeps apologizing for it.

Mr. Rolls is a terrible dyspeptic, and the only things he can digest (he has told me and Rags several times) are soft-shelled crabs, devilled, and plum-pudding or cake. When he has a pain he paces floors like a tiger, but does not roar.

I haven't met many Americans here yet, because the Rollses somehow don't seem to know the right ones, and Ena makes excuses for that, too. I wish she wouldn't. It gets on my nerves, and Rags's nerves as well, I fancy, though he doesn't say so, and he's thinking a lot about whether she'll do. Because I haven't met many others, I don't know whether or not the Rollses are just like all American millionaires who don't come abroad, or unique. But I have an idea they're unique.

This is the most enormous house, built and named to please Ena, though it's no more a manor than the Albert Hall is. I don't believe she knows what "manor" means. Every bedroom I've seen (and I think I've been shown all | | 129 if I haven't lost count) has its own bathroom adjoining, and a sitting-room as well. In each bathroom there are several different kinds of baths, and a marble one you step down into, but it's bitterly cold on your spine—the only cold thing in the house, which is so hot with a furnace that even the walls and floors feel warm, although I keep my windows wide open day and night.

The pillow-cases and sheets are made of such rich, thick linen, and are so smooth and polished that you slip down off your pillows with a crick in your neck, and the sheets slide off you, just as if they were made of heavy silver, like lids of dishes. Perhaps the monograms and crests drag them down. It's awful, but it's grand. And I should think there are at least twenty footmen with—if you'll believe me—powdered hair!

Of course, poor Ena took a fancy to it in England. I don't think she stayed at any houses, but she was at some hotel where they have it, so she didn't see why not. If you ring a bell, dozens of these helpless-looking, white-headed creatures in black and yellow simply swarm from every direction, like great insects when you've poured hot water into their hive—or hole.

If any really nice people happen to stop in their motor for any reason at the house in the morning, say about eleven o'clock, they are offered magnums of champagne, as if out of gratitude for their coming. They hardly ever seem to do more than sip, so perhaps the black and yellow insects get the rest. There's an English butler, and it would make your heart bleed, or else you'd want to howl, if you saw his agonized, apologetic look whenever you, as a British person, knowing about other ways of running a house, happened to catch his elderly eye.

Mr. and Mrs. Rolls get up at goodness knows what hour and have breakfast together, so does Petro—that's the nickname for the son. But Ena and Mubs and Rags and I can wallow as long as we like and have gorgeous breakfasts in our rooms. Mubs thinks Mrs. R. is a fool, because she can hardly understand what a woman wants with a vote, but I think she's a dear. She sends cart-loads of flowers to | | 130 hospitals, and if you speak of a charity she hauls handfuls of dollar bills out of an immense gold chain bag she always carries on her arm because Petro gave it her for a birthday present, and it, and Ena's one, a size smaller, has the fat air of containing all her luggage ready to start off from Saturday to Monday at a moment's notice. I suppose it's money that looks so plump.

Now do you think Rags ought to resist the daughter of such a house when church mice have long ago cut our acquaintance? Of course, Rags is lucky at bridge (he gave me a lovely dress on board ship), but he can't live on it regularly. So far it's a toss up. I'll let you know how things go.

Mubs is writing an article for an American newspaper which has offered her fifty pounds. This is the first fun she's ever got out of being a countess—and now I shouldn't wonder if she'd be a dowager soon! As for me, I'm trying to flirt with Petro. No, to be honest, that isn't quite true. I'm not exactly flirting. He's too good for that. Ena says he's "blue," because he has no interest in life, and that it'll cheer him up if I encourage him to talk to me about some philanthropical schemes he has.

One is a "Start in Life Fund" for deserving and clever young people who need only a hand up to get on. I wish I could go in for it myself—but perhaps I'm not deserving or clever. Anyhow, Ena says her brother likes me awfully, better than any girl he ever saw before, and that he thinks me pretty. Did you ever? No wonder I like him! I shouldn't mind his knowing that I do, as Ena says he thinks no girl could care for him. That sounds pathetic. I let her know that, as he's so despairingly modest, she might break it to him that I enjoy his society. Since then he's been much nicer, though, perhaps still a little absent-minded, which may come from being "blue." I should like to know what Ena said to him! But I suppose it's all right!

>Your chum and cousin, EILY.

P.S.—They've got a shop in New York. I forgot to | | 131 tell you that—a huge shop. It's never mentioned here, but Petro told me. He's not ashamed, but rather proud of the way the money came. Rags wants him and Ena to take us to the place.

What Ena did say to Peter was, "Poor little Eileen is falling in love with you." Peter didn't believe it. But it put a strange idea into his head.

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