- CHAPTER XIV FROM SCYLLA TO CHARYBDIS
|<< chapter 13||< chapter 1||chapter 15 >||chapter 27 >>|
FROM SCYLLA TO CHARYBDIS
SHE went in. Mr. Meggison sat in front of his roll-top desk. No such world-shaking event as his rising to receive her took place. His stenographer's chair was vacant. The cherubic aspect had for the moment dominated Mephistopheles. Mr. Meggison was smiling. But Win did not know whether to fear the smile or to thank her stars for it.
Little girls—and sometimes big ones—should be seen and not heard, so Win waited in meek, flushed silence for the great man to speak.
"Shut the door, please, Miss—er—Miss Child," said he. And the cherubic eyes gazing from under the fierce contradiction of heavy eyebrows up to the tall girl's face conveyed to her mind that "please" was a tribute. Also, she suddenly knew that the superintendent had hesitated over her name on purpose. A man in a high position may wish to be agreeable to a girl beneath him, at the same time informing her that she is of no vast importance.
With a certain stiff young dignity Win shut the office door.
"You may as well sit down. I want to talk to you."
She sat down in the chair of Mr. Meggison's absent stenographer. By this time the pink of her cheeks had deepened to red. She was wondering more than ever what he was going to do and what she would do when | | 146 he had done it. But as she sat facing him she realized that she was no longer afraid. She felt a sense of power and resource.
"Are you surprised that I remember your name, Miss Child?" he asked.
"I don't know the custom," she replied primly. Would he expect her to say "Sir?" Anyhow, she wouldn't! She compromised with a dainty meekness which might be interpreted as respect for a superior.
Mr. Meggison fixed her with a sharp look which would have detected the impudence of a lurking laugh.
"That's a funny answer," said he. "You 'don't know the custom!' Well, my idea of you is, you don't know much about any business customs, on our side of the water or yours either." As he spoke he watched her face to catch any guilty flicker of an eyelid. "I want you to tell me what was your idea in going in for a job with us."
"I saw your advertisement for extra hands."
"The woods—I mean the papers—are full of advertisements. What made you pick out ours?"
"I'd tried to get other things, and failed."
"So we were a last resort, eh?"
"I thought first of being a governess or a companion or getting into a public library or—things of that sort."
"Why not the stage? You're a good-looking girl, with a figure."
"I did try: but not for musical comedy. I promised my father I never would. Anyhow, I don't suppose I could have got on—an amateur like me. Every place in New York seems full up. And I have no training of any sort."
"Just a young lady, eh?"
Win smiled. "I never thought of it as a profession—or a label."
He looked slightly puzzled, and when Mr. Meggison | | 147 was puzzled by an employé he was generally annoyed. This case seemed, however, to be an exception. He kept his temper, and even condescended to grin.
"I don't want you should think I'm asking all these questions because we have any fault to find with you," he said. "You've done very well. I always know what's going on all over the place. I keep track of everything in every department. I wouldn't be where I am if I wasn't up to that. I called you here partly to compliment you on your smartness in that little stunt of the first day. And you've gone on all right since, all right. These things don't get lost in the wash. But before I come to that I'm bound to tell you that the report's come up to me you're a spy."
He threw the cap at her, in a way to make her jump if it fitted. But Win did not flinch. What she had overheard on the first day saved her now from a shock of surprise.
"I caught that word about me from one of the girls," she admitted frankly. "I wondered what made her think me a spy, and I'm wondering still."
"I guess she thought you looked a sort of swell, and anyone could see you weren't used to work."
"But—there must be lots of girls like me in your big shops, just as there are at home."
"No, that's where you're mistaken, Miss Child. There's more chances with us for women than with you, and more places for 'em. We don't get many of your class in the stores. They can do better for themselves. You, being a stranger, though, had no pull. And maybe you haven't been over here long."
"I haven't been long. And my money ran short," smiled Win, encouraged now, since neither of Sadie's prognostications seemed likely to be fulfilled. "Still, I don't see why it should occur to anybody that I was a spy. What would a spy do in a shop?"| | 148
"That depends whether the job came from outside or in."
"I don't understand!"
"Well, there's a set of smart Alecks who've banded together and call themselves the Anti-Sweat League, or Work People's Aid Society, or any old name like that. They smell around to see what goes on behind the scenes in a department-store and drop on us if they can."
"Oh, I see! And you thought they might have hired me——"
"I didn't think so, as a matter of fact. I pride myself on spotting folks for what they are the minute I lamp them. There's something about 'em I can feel. I was sure you weren't one of that bunch. But I felt bound to mention the report. Now that's finished—breakfast cleared away! We'll go on to the next thing."
Again Win waited. And her heart missed a beat, for Mr. Meggison was looking at her as if he had something very special to say.
"Most of the extra people we let go the week after Christmas," he went on slowly. "Even if they're smart, we have enough regular ones without 'em. But perhaps we can keep you on if you make good. And if you want to stay. Do you?"
"Yes, thank you. So far as I can tell now, I should like to stay, if I give satisfaction," Win answered with caution.
"Well, we'll see. It's up to you anyhow. I told you I was going to test your character. That's why I put you where I did. I knew what you'd be up against. Now the idea is to test you some more."
He paused an instant. This was a catch phrase of his: "the idea is." He often used it. And when he said: "It is my habit," or "My way is," he spoke with the repressed yet bursting pride of the self-made man | | 149 who has suddenly been raised to a height almost beyond his early dreams.
"I may change you into another department next week," he went on, "where you'll have a better time and less work. What do you say to Gloves?"
Win felt very stupid. "What ought I to say to Gloves?" she inquired helplessly.
Then the great Mr. Meggison actually laughed. "Gee! You are an amateur, Miss Child. Why, the girls all think the Gloves are the pick of the basket. What your London Gaiety is to actresses, that the glove department is to our sales-ladies. It's called the marriage market. Ladies' and gents' gloves, you understand. Now do you see the point?"
"I suppose I do," Win rather reluctantly confessed, faintly blushing.
"Some of the best lookers in our Gloves have married Fifth Avenue swells. It's pretty busy there just now. The young fellows buy gloves by the dozen for their best girls at Christmas-time when they want to ring a change on flowers. Maybe I'll put you into Gloves, if you'll agree to make yourself useful."
"I'll try to do my best wherever you put me, Mr. Meggison," said Win, sounding to herself like a heroine of a Sunday serial, and feeling not unlike one in a difficult situation at the end of an instalment. At home, in her father's house, she had occasionally been driven to read Sunday serials on Sunday. They were the only fiction permitted on that day.
"That's all right. But now I mean something in particular," explained Meggison. "I told you what they were saying about you in your department to see how you'd take it. Well, you didn't seem desperately shocked at the idea of being engaged by a so-called charitable society to watch out for any breaks we might make. Not that we do make any, so your trouble | | 150 would have been wasted. We give our girls seats and every living thing the law asks for, and our men make no complaints that we hear. But, of course, we ain't omnipotent. Things are said, things happen we don't get onto, little tricks that cost us money. Folks shirking, and even stealing; we have to keep a sharp look-out. We can't turn the spotlights onto everybody at once. So when we come across a pair of lamps that are bright, a long way above the average, we sometimes make it worth their while——"
"Oh, Mr. Meggison, please don't go on!" Win cut the great man short. "I'd rather you didn't say it, because—I don't wish to hear. I—I don't want to know what you mean."
It was his turn to flush. But the change of colour was only just perceptible. He had himself under almost perfect control. His eyes sent out a flash, then became dull and expressionless as blue-grey marbles. He was silent and watchful. Win, after her outburst, was breathlessly speechless.
"Good!" said he at last. "Very good. That's the second test. And it's all right, like the first. Now do you understand?"
"I—I'm not sure. I——"
"You just said you didn't want to know what I meant. But I want you to know. I was testing your character again. I'm sure now you're straight. You're a good girl, as well as a smart one, Miss Child."
Suddenly, just as she had begun to feel so relieved that tears were on the way to her eyes, Meggison bent forward with an abrupt movement and laid his hot, plump hand heavily on hers. Up jumped the girl and down fell the hand. She seemed to hear herself excusing herself and explaining her rashness to Sadie: "I couldn't stand it. I wouldn't! I didn't care what happened."| | 151
"What's the matter?" he asked, blustering, his face now very red. He kept his seat and looked up at her with a bullish stare.
"Nothing is the matter, Mr. Meggison," she said. "Only I think I've troubled you long enough. You—will be wanting me to go."
As she spoke she gazed straight and steadily down into his eyes, as if he were an animal that could be mastered if your look never let his go. She remembered how Sadie had said that Meggison wanted to be a "dog," but his bark might be stopped if you showed him in time that you were not afraid. Winifred was afraid, but she acted as if she were not, which was the great thing. And the "stunt," as Sadie would have called it, seemed to work—if only for the moment.
When his face had cooled, he said: "Yes, you can go, Miss Child. I've nothing more to say to you—at present. Except this: it won't be Gloves."
Tingling, burning, whirling with the excitement of her interview—fully felt only after it was over—Win started to hurry back to work. It was not a crowded time of the day in the shopping world. Many ladies were lunching, not buying, and employés, if on business, were permitted to use the elevators, white light going up, red light down. Only the boy in smart shop livery, who rushed the lift from roof to basement, was in the mirrored vehicle when Win got in at the superintendent's floor.
"Hats, Children's Wardrobes, Games, Toys, Books, Stationery!" shouted the strident young voice mechanically as the doors whizzed back in their groove at the story below.
In streamed some jaded mothers and children, for whom Win backed humbly into a corner, and then, just as the doors were about to snap shut once more for | | 152 a downward plunge, a young man and woman hurried laughing in. Winifred Child shrank farther into her corner, plastering herself against the wall of the elevator and turning her face away, for the new-comers were Lord Raygan and Ena Rolls.
As the wall consisted entirely of mirrors, however, turning away gave little protection. The mothers refusing to retire with their young before the latest arrivals, "swell" though they might be, Miss Rolls and her companion were forced to push past the forms which kept the door, and by the time the elevator had shot down a story or two further the pair were close to Win. Still she kept her face twisted as far over her shoulder as it would go, at risk of getting a cramp in the neck, and her heart was beating with such loud thuds under the respectable black blouse that she feared lest they should hear it.
"Why, hello—it's the Lady in the Moon!" exclaimed Lord Raygan gaily, just when Win had begun to hope she might reach the ground-floor level without being discovered.
Involuntarily Ena turned with a slight start, recognized Win, pretended not to, and presented the back instead of the side of a wonderful hat. An aigrette jabbed viciously at the tall shop-girl's eye, and Miss Rolls said hastily: "What Lady in the Moon? I don't know whom you're talking about, Lord Raygan. But oh, here's our floor! This is where I want to get out."
"Never mind, let's stop in and come up again," commanded Raygan in the masterful way which Ena loved for its British male brutality—when it didn't interfere with her wishes. "It's Miss—oh, you know, from the Monarchic. Don't you remember her in the moon dress? How do you do, Miss—er—er? Who would have thought of meeting you here?"
They were crowded almost as closely together in the | | 153 lift as chocolates in a box, and it was impossible not to answer.
"How do you do?" responded Win desperately, and Miss Rolls, making the best of a bad dilemma, found it obligatory to recognize Miss Child. If she had not done so Lord Raygan would have thought her snobbish, though it was not entirely from snobbishness that she had wished to escape the girl of the Monarchic.
Her heart was beating almost as hard as Win's. Her brother Peter and Lady Eileen were somewhere in the shop. This was the day chosen for the sight-seeing expedition insisted upon by Raygan. Ena had hated the idea of it, hated having to be associated in Raygan's eyes with the Hands. She had felt a presentiment that something horrid would happen, but she hadn't supposed it would be quite so horrid and upsetting as this.
A dozen times Petro had asked if she'd ever heard from Miss Child. Only day before yesterday—the silly fellow never seemed to forget! And any moment now he and Eileen might come. They had made a rendezvous at the jewellery department, not far from this row of elevators, on the ground floor. Hang the girl! How little delicacy she had shown in taking a place in Peter Rolls's father's store after that conversation on the ship! And how was she to be got rid of in a desperate hurry without making Lord Raygan cross?
|<< chapter 13||< chapter 1||chapter 15 >||chapter 27 >>|