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 12 chapter 27 >>

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"NO. 2884, Child, W. Pay Envelope. Details under flap," Winifred read on the neat, pale-brown packet put into her hand the night when she had served Peter Rolls for a week—or was it five hundred weeks? "READ THE OTHER SIDE" was printed in capital letters of white upon a black background on the flap which must be torn open to get at the contents and "details." The latter consisted of "Deductions, Absent, Late Fines, Keys, Mdse., Stamps, Beneficial Ass., and Sub. Slips."

But Win had been neither absent nor late. Being an extra hand only, and liable to be "dispensed with" at the end of the holidays, she had not needed to subscribe her hard-earned pennies to Beneficial Assurance, that huge fund made up of weekly coppers, whose interest was to Peter Rolls almost what "Peter's Pence" are to the Pope. Thanks to her good health and good behaviour, "Cash Enclosed" (as secretly mentioned under the flap) was practically intact. But it had been a nightmare week which seemed longer than all the past weeks of her life added together, and if she had earned a hundred dollars instead of six she would not have felt too highly paid.

She moved wearily away from the office window, obeying the directions to "read other side," and as she walked down the long corridor (her sore feet causing her to limp slightly) the words if sick or disabled, notify | | 133 employment bureau at once sang through her head, keeping time with her uneven steps.

She was "reading the other side," the other side of life which appeared to her as separate from the side she had known as the bright was separate from the dark side of the moon; the side about which people seldom troubled and never saw. A few weeks ago, before that "wild spirit" of hers lured her half across the world to find independence, she would have thought, feeling as she felt to-night, that she was both sick and disabled. But now she knew that hundreds of other girls under this very roof felt just as she felt, and that they took it for granted as a normal condition of life. They hardly pitied themselves, and she must be as stoical. If once she lost courage she might do the thing she had boasted to Peter Rolls junior that she would never do—cry.

She thought to find a tonic effect from the sight of money earned, and in taking out her six dollars she let fall a slip of white paper from the pay-envelope. It fluttered away, to alight on the floor, and Win's heart beat as she picked it up.

Her discharge already? What could she have done to be sent off at the end of a week—she who had tried so hard? And how strange that, tired and disheartened as she was, she should actually fear discharge? A minute ago she had been asking herself "How many weeks like this can I live through?" and wishing that an end, almost any end, might come. Yet here she was dreading to turn the slip over (she had retrieved it blank side up) and read her doom.

"You are requested to call at the superintendent's private office Monday, twelve forty-five," was neatly typewritten precisely in the middle of the paper.

Win did not know whether to be relieved or alarmed.

"I'll ask Sadie what she thinks," was her quick | | 134 decision. But Sadie was not available this evening. An "old chum" had asked Miss Kirk out to supper, and Miss Child having snubbed her faithful lion-man for reasons which had appeared good at the time, had no one to give her the key to those dozen mystic words which might as well have been written in cipher.

"And even Sadie can't tell for certain," she reflected. "I can't possibly know till Monday noon."

All the fatigue and nerve strain of six dreadful days and six appalling nights seemed suddenly to culminate in a fit of overpowering restlessness. Worn out though she was (or all the more because of that, perhaps) she could not go "home" to Columbus Avenue, where the "L" that Sadie said should be spelled with an "H" ran past her window.

She was sure if she sat down or went to bed she should think more about her aching back and burning feet than if she walked. She longed for the sweet, kind air of heaven to ripple past her hot cheeks like cool water. She longed for stars to look up to and for the purple peace and silence of night after the clamour of the store and before the babel of Columbus Avenue into which presently she must plunge.

"I'll walk in the park," she proposed to herself. "It will do me good. When I'm too tired I can rest for a few minutes on one of the seats and hear myself think."

That was one of the many disadvantages of "home." There you could hear at the same time almost every other sound which could be produced in the world, but you could not hear yourself think.

Earl Usher was not to be seen as she came out into the street, and Win was glad. Once or twice to-day she had half repented the snub which, perhaps, he had not meant to deserve, but now she thanked it for his absence. Swiftly she walked away, though still with | | 135 the just perceptible limp that most shop-girls have in their first few weeks of "business."

She did not look up at the giant Hands with their blazing rings, as she had looked at first, half admiring, half awed. Their gesture now seemed greedy. They were trying to "grab die whole sky," as the lion-tamer said. Rather would one hurry to escape from under them and go where the Hands of Peter Rolls could not reach.

It was exquisite in the park, and she was thinking how a delicate, floating blue curtain appeared to shut her away for a little while from all the harshness of life when a small and singularly silent automobile glided by. A lamp showed her the forms of two men in the open car, one in front, who drove, and one behind, who sat with arms folded.

"How heavenly to have the air and lean back rest-fully without needing to walk," thought tired Win.

She was envying the comfortable figure with its arms folded when the little car turned and, to her astonishment, drew up close beside her. Involuntarily she stopped; then, as one of the men jumped out, she regained her presence of mind and walked on at top speed.

The man strode along after her, however, and spoke. "Don't you remember me? That's very unkind. You might wait a minute, anyhow, and let me remind you where we met. I recognized you as I went by, that's why I came back."

Wondering if it could be possible that they had met, Win ventured a glance at the face on a level with her own. She knew instantly that never had she seen it before.

"You're mistaken," she said. "I don't know you. Please go."

"Logan is my name," he persisted. "Jim Logan. | | 136 Now don't you remember? But you didn't tell me your name that other time."

Win took longer steps. This active hint did not, however, trouble Mr. Logan. He was an inch or so taller than she, perhaps, and kept step with the utmost ease.

"You and I might have been at the same dancing-school," said he. "I'm doing the newest stunt—the wango. Is that what you're doing, too? Or is it the y-lang-y-lango? I could go on like this all night! I hope you're not engaged to anybody else for the next dance?"

"As a matter of fact, I am," said Win sharply, though it was all she could do not to laugh. "My partner will very much object to you."

"That's all right. It's not likely he knows ju-jitsu as well as I do," cheerfully replied the man, still hurrying on at the same pace. He kept half a step in advance of the girl, as if to be prepared in case she should begin to run; and thus, without seeming to look, Win could see him in profile.

He was so smartly dressed that, in England, he would have been called a "nut." What was the American equivalent for a nut, she did not know. He had a hawk-nosed profile which might have been effective had not his undercut jaw stuck out aggressively, suggesting extreme, hectoring obstinacy, even cruelty.

She had time to see that his hair was an uninteresting brown and his skin the ordinary sallow skin of the man about town. But suddenly he took her unawares, turning to face her with disquieting abruptness. She caught an impression of eyes sparkling in the lamplight; small, and set in true villain style rather close on either side of a high-bridged, narrow nose, yet bright and boldly smiling. His voice was that of an educated person and not disagreeable in tone, but Win was anxious to escape hearing it again.

| | 137

He seemed to wait for an answer, and when it did not come, he went on:

"You ought to go in for an Olympic race. You're all for them in England. I'm out of training, but I can stand this as long as you can, I bet. The only thing is, I wanted to take you for a run in my auto., it's such a nice, crisp night. I'll drive you home, if you say the word."

"The thing wished for comes when your hands are tied," says the Turkish proverb. Win had been yearning for a spin. She kept silence and sped on, wondering whether she could surprise the enemy by executing a sudden right-about-face.

"Have you been in this country long?"he inquired.

No answer.

"Oh, indeed, is that so? I thought you hadn't! Are you living in New York at present? Don't be afraid to tell me. Even if you are, that won't drive me out of the little old burg. See here, you're mighty restless. And you do hate to part with much of your conversation at one time, don't you? You're a peach, all right, but a spiced peach preserved in vinegar."

Winifred wheeled and began walking east even faster than she had been walking west. In the distance a tall—a very tall—figure was approaching, like a ship under full sail. Could it be——! Yes, it was! Bless the light of the lamp that showed him! Now indeed she dared to laugh.

"Here comes that partner of mine at last!" she exclaimed, and almost ran to meet the lion-tamer.

"Good Lord! Very well, I can't hope to compete against cigar signs," replied Mr. Logan. "I was unprepared for Goliath. Little David will fade away till he gets his sling. You make me forget my name and telephone number, but this is where I get off at. Please remember me next time."

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"I will, when next time comes!" Win was tempted to toss after him impudently as, lifting his cap, the motorist took a hasty short cut to the motor. Win was actually laughing when Earl Usher joined her. She felt safe, and not even tired. The little adventure had had its uses, after all! It had been, she thought, just as beneficial and not nearly as expensive as a tonic or a Turkish bath.

"Was that mutt a gentleman friend of yours, kid, or was he some fresh guy? 'Cause, if he was playing the fool, I'll break into the game and go for his blood," remarked the rescuer.

"It was a Mr. Logan," replied Win hurriedly, making up her mind that she must avoid any chance of trouble. "But—but I don't like him much," she added. "I was very glad when I saw you. And I'm not going to scold you for following me, because I know you meant well—and, as it happened, it's ending well. For a reward, I forgive you everything. And I've just thought of a new name for you, Mr. Usher."

"Hope it's some better than Sadie Kirk's."

"What—Teddy Bear? Yes, it's better than that. Did you ever read 'Quo Vadis'?"

"Not on your life. Sounds like a patent medicine."

"It's a novel. And in it a great good giant of a young man devotes himself to rescuing a maiden named Lygia. His name was Ursus, and he was so strong he could bring a bull to its knees——"

"Why, you silly little kid, that's a movie, not a novel. I've seen Ursus and his bull, all right. You're makin' me stuck on myself. I feel as if I was it."

"Well, you are it. I christen you Ursus. And thank you very much for taking so much trouble about me."

"I didn't take trouble," protested Ursus, half afraid that he was being "kidded." "All I did was to beat it after you at what the swell reporters call a respectful | | 139 distance, just to see you safe home if you meant to hoof it. When you shot into the park, thinks I, 'maybe she's made a date to chat with a gentleman friend, so I'll hang back, But——"

"It was quite an accident, meeting Mr. Logan, I assure you, Ursus," said Win, still unwilling to confide in him the details of the late encounter, which seemed ridiculous now it was over. "I wanted a breath of air. I have had it, and if you'll be very good, and never use such a word again as you did night before last, you may walk home with me if you like."

"What word do you refer to? Cutie?"

"Yes. And another still more offensive."


"Yes. Disgusting! 'Kid's' bad enough. But I thought you mightn't know any better. I draw the line at the others."

"All right," said Ursus rather sulkily, sure that he was being made fun of now. "But when a chap's a girl's friend, what is he to call her?"

"'You' will do very well, if 'Miss Child' is beyond your vocabulary."

"I don't call that bein' friends. Say, is that mutt's automobile sort of following along in our wake?"

"I don't know, for I don't want to look back," said Win. (They were out of the park by this time.) "But—I've changed my mind about walking all the way. Let's hurry and take a Fifty-Ninth Street car!"

By day, in the shop, Win could laugh when she thought of the Columbus Avenue house where she and Sadie "hung out." But at night, in her room, trying desperately to sleep, she could not even smile. To do so, with all those noises fraying the edges of her brain, would be to gibber!

In that neighbourhood front rooms were cheaper | | 140 than rooms at the back. Lodgers who could afford to do so paid extra money for a little extra tranquillity. Neither Sadie Kirk nor Winifred Child was of these aristocrats. Their landlady had thriftily hired two cheap flats in a fair-sized house whose ground floor was occupied by a bakery and whose fire-escapes gave it the look of a big body wearing its skeleton outside. She "rented" her rooms separately, and made money on the transaction, though she could afford to take low prices.

In the street below the narrow windows surface-cars whirred to and fro and clanged their bells. In front of the windows, and strangely, terribly near to the six-inch-wide balconies furnished with withered rubber plants, roared the "L" trains, jointed, many-eyed dragons chasing each other so fast that there seemed to be no pause between, at any hour of the day or during most hours of the night. Private life behind those windows was impossible unless you kept your blinds down. If you forgot, or said wildly to yourself that you didn't care, that you must breathe and see your own complexion by daylight at any cost, thousands of faces, one after the other, stared into yours. You could almost touch them, and it was little or no consolation to reflect when they had seen you brushing your hair or fastening your blouse that these travellers in trains would never hear your name or know who you were.

As for a bath—but then the great, magnificent advantage of living at Mrs. McFarrell's was the bathroom. It was dark and small and smelled of the black-beetles who lived happily round the hot-water pipes. You were not expected to take more than one bath a week, and for that one bath-towel was provided free.

"Oh, I thought you'd had your bath this week!" was the answer Win got on her second night, when. mildly asking for a towel which had disappeared. But | | 141 if you were silly enough to pay thirty cents extra for putting water on your body every day you could do so. and, anyhow, a bathroom was a splendid advertisement. One lodger told another: "The use of the bathroom is thrown in."

That night, when Win had bathed and laid herself carefully down in the narrow bed which shook and groaned as if suffering from palsy, it seemed more impossible than ever to go to sleep. Each new train that rumbled by was a giant, homing bee, her brain the hive for which it aimed. Her hot head was crowded with thoughts, disturbing, fighting, struggling thoughts, yet the giant bee pushed the throng ruthlessly aside and darted in. Each time it seemed impossible to bear it again. She felt as if she had caterpillars walking slowly in her spine and ants crawling on her nerves.

Win thought about the superintendent, Mr. Meggison, and wondered again and again whether she would be discharged or whether he had merely "taken a fancy" to her looks and wished to see if she were flirtatiously inclined. She knew now, from Sadie, that Meggison's desire was to be a "gay dog," though his courage did not always march with his ambition.

The red-haired girl, Sadie supposed, had perhaps come to the Hands armed with an introduction from some "lady friend." This theory would account for Meggison's mysterious murmur of, "That's different." What should she—Win—do, if Father invited her to dine with him, as it seemed he did invite some of the girls? Sadie said that if such a thing happened to her she would accept, because she wasn't afraid of Father. She "could scare him more than he could scare her," and a mere extra hand might "get the push" if she refused a civil invitation.

With Mr. Croft, "Saint Peter's Understudy," it was more dangerous. You had to beware of him. If | | 142 you were a "looker," like Win, the best thing that could happen to you was never to come within eye-shot of Henry Croft. He lived in the suburbs, was married, and the superintendent of a Sunday-school. His name was on all the charity lists. He was so tall and thin and sprawling that he looked like a human hat-rack, and his solemn circle of a face, surrounded with yellowish whiskers, had a sunflower effect. He had written a book, "Week-Day Sermons by a Layman," nevertheless he was a terror.

There were, acording to Sadie, girls in the store who were of no more use as saleswomen than baby alligators would have been, but they "gave the glad eye" to Mr. Croft and accepted his flowers and invitations for moonlight motor rides. Nearly every one knew, but nobody told.

What use? Who was there to tell? Croft was "up at the top, and then some." Only Saint Peter himself stood above. And who would dare complain to Saint Peter about his respectable right hand? Even if there were any chance of getting near P. R., which there wasn't. He came mostly at night, as if it were a disgrace to show himself in a shop, even if it was his own. If ever he did any "prowling" in business hours, it was with the understudy glued to his side.

As for "sweating" and "grinding," there wasn't a cent's worth difference between Croft and Meggison, said Sadie. Nevertheless Win was feeling thankful, as the "L" train bees boomed through her brain, that at worst it was Mr. Meggison who had mysteriously summoned her, not Mr. Croft.

If only she could go to sleep and forget them both and the trains and the cars and the man in the park and Miss Stein, who still had against her a "grouch!" If only she could forget even big, blundering Ursus, who wanted to treat her to oyster stews that he couldn't | | 143 afford and take her to a dance hall next Sunday! And Sadie, too, who knew such strange and awful things about the world and life, although she was so good.

But no. Impossible to stop thinking, impossible to forget, impossible to sleep. All New York seemed to be about her ears. She could hear the frantic rush of everything which true New Yorkers love, and she could feel its sky-scrapers closing in round her like an unclimbable wall. As she thought of the great, noisy city she saw it consisting entirely of vastly high towers, with inhabitants who spent their time in tearing about—people who looked at her in the street as if she were not there, or, if she was, they would rather she were somewhere else.

She dared not picture the ships sailing for England nearly every day of the week. If she were free to do what she liked—or almost what she liked—she would go at least as often as every Saturday to watch a big liner move out from the dock, just for the delicious torture of it.

And yet—did she want to go back home? Whenever she asked herself this question—and it was often—invariably, for some silly reason, she saw the blue, wistful eyes of that hypocrite, the younger Peter Rolls. Also there came upon her a choking sense of homelessness, a mother-want in a lonely world. But, as Sadie Kirk agreed with her in saying, "What was the good of squeezing juice out of your eyes just because you happened to be low in your mind?" No, she would not cry!

Then, after all, she dropped asleep in a minute's interval between trains and dreamed that she was lost in Fifty-Ninth Street. It was as long as the way to England and a ghastly street to be lost in. Its sky-line—if it knew anything about the sky—was as irregular as a Wagner dragon's teeth—high buildings and low | | 144 buildings and shanties where coloured families lived; little, sinister-looking houses where people could be murdered and their bodies never found, shops where you could buy everything you didn't want and nothing that you did.

In the dream black and white children were fighting and skating on roller-skates over the pavement. Cars were clanging bells. Everybody and everything was making a noise of some sort. Win was trying to get past the skaters and catch a car. She must, or she would be late for something! But what? This was horrible. She was going somewhere and could not remember where or what she had to do. She was lost forever and had forgotten her name and the name of the street where she lived. A roller-skating boy with the face of a black monkey threw her down, and a surface car and Peter Rolls's automobile were about to run over her when she waked with a jump that shook the palsied bed. Another "L" train booming by!

Despite lack of sleep and a tiredness of body that Sunday could not cure, Win had never looked more attractive than when, at precisely twelve forty-five on Monday afternoon, she presented herself at Mr. Meggison's door.

This was his private den, and a visit there, even on a less alarming errand than hers, was far more formidable than pausing for inspection at an office window. Sadie, with the best intentions, had been able to give little encouragement. There must be scolding or else flirting in prospect. And Winifred's eyes were bright, her cheeks pink, her head high, as the superintendent's voice bade her "Come in."

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