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 16 chapter 27 >>

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FROM her own point of view, the lost dryad was a prominent figure in the middle of the foreground; for life was strenuous for those in the grasp of the Hands, and it was only at night, when her body could lie quiet while her brain was still terribly active, that other figures assumed their due importance for Win in the great, bright picture of New York.

It was something to be thankful for that she had escaped Peter the day of that visit of inspection to the store. Not that she was afraid of him or anything he could do if they should meet. That would have been too silly and Victorian! Girls were not like that nowadays, if they had any sense, no matter how "dangerous" men might be.

But she had liked him so much, and had been so bitterly disappointed to learn from his own loving sister that he was not the "Mr. Balm of Gilead" created by her imagination, that it would be unbearable to meet him again, to see him "giving himself away" and thus proving his sister right.

To be sure, after stumbling upon Miss Rolls in the lift, certain kind protestations of friendship had been contradicted by a frozen smile, a cold, embarrassed eye. If Peter's sister were insincere in one way, why not untrustworthy in others? This was one of the questions that darted into Win's brain at night through one of the holes made there by the giant bees of the "L" road. But the | | 179 answer was obvious. Miss Rolls might be superficial, insincere, and snobbish enough to dislike claiming acquaintance with a girl of the "working classes," but there was no motive strong enough to make her traduce her brother's character. Even untrustworthy people told the truth sometimes.

It was rather fortunate, perhaps, that Win had another exciting thought to engross her attention at this time, though it was no more agreeable than the thought of Peter Rolls. After her conversation with Mr. Meggison she confidently expected to find her dismissal in the next pay-envelope. It was not there; but suddenly and without warning she was dragged out of Blouses and Neckwear and dumped into Toys.

This was as great a surprise to Sadie Kirk and Earl Usher as to Win herself. She dropped upon them as if she had fallen out of the sky—or at least from the top floor. And nobody knew why: whether it was a punishment or a reward. For Toys gave harder work for the hands without a capital H than Blouses and Neckwear, even when Miss Stein was badly "peeved." Also, Mr. Tobias, the floor-walker concerned with the toy department, was "a spalpeen and a pie-faced mutt from 'way back," whereas Fred Thorpe was a well-known angel. Yet, on the other hand, not only were more than half the toy assistants men, but many of the customers also were men. This made the department more lively to be in than Blouses, and some girls considered Toys next best to Gloves.

It was almost like coming into a strange shop when Win arrived with Sadie before eight o'clock in the morning for her first day in Toyland, as Earl Usher facetiously named it. The December morning hardly knew yet that it had been born, and though already there was life in the Hands—fierce, active life—those pulsing white globes which made artificial sunshine what- | | 180 ever the weather, had not yet begun to glow like illuminated snowballs. Shadowy men were lifting pale shrouds off the counters. Voices chattering in the gloom were like voices of monkeys in a dusky jungle—a jungle quite unlike that fairy place where Peter Rolls had talked of Win to Lady Eileen. Out of the gloom wondrous things emerged to people a weird world—the Hands' world of toys.

As Win strained her eyes to sec through the dusk, forth from its depths loomed uncouth, motionless shapes. Almost life-size lions and Teddy bears and huge, grinning baboons as big as five-year-old boys, posed in silent, expressive groups, dangerously near to unprotected dolls' houses with open fronts—splendid dolls' houses, large enough for children to enter, and less important dolls' houses, only big enough for fairies. Dolls' eyes and dolls' dresses and dolls' golden curls caught what little light there was and drew attention to themselves.

Some of them stood, three rows deep (the little ones in front, like children watching a show) on shelves with sliding doors of glass. Others were being fetched out by the chattering shadows, as if they were favourite chorus-girls, to display their graces on the counters. They were placed in chairs, or motor-cars of doll-land, or seated carefully in baby-carriages. There were walking dolls and talking dolls and dolls who could suck real milk out of real bottles into tin-lined stomachs. Some exquisitely gowned porcelain Parisiennes, with eyelashes and long hair cut from the heads of penniless children, were almost as big and as aristocratic as their potential millionaire mistresses. Humbler sisters of middle class combined prettiness with cheapness and had the satisfaction of showing their own price marks.

These delicate creatures, lovely in pale-tinted robes, or forlorn in chemises, were the bright spots in the | | 181 vast, dark department, shining out through the dusk as stars' shine through thin black clouds. As Win became one of the band of shadows, under Sadie's direction, gradually she grew accustomed to the gloom, and her gaze called many of the strange objects forth into life.

She found long-haired Shetland ponies big enough to ride, glorified hobby-horses clad in real skins, and unglorified ones with nostrils like those of her landlady in Columbus Avenue. Biscuit-coloured Jersey cows which could be milked gazed mildly into space with expensive glass eyes. Noah's ark, big enough to be lived in if the animals would move up, seemed to have been painted with Bakst colours. Fearsome faces glared from behind the bars of menagerie cages. Donkeys and Chinese mandarins nodded good morning and forgot to stop. Dragon broods of miniature motorcars nested in realistic garages.

Dramatic scenes from real plays were being enacted in dumb show on the stages of theatres apparently decorated by Rothenstein. The Russian ballet had stopped in the midst of "Le Spectre de la Rose." Suits of armour, which Ursus called "pewter rain-coats," glimmered in dark spaces behind piled drums and under limply hanging flags or aeroplances ready to take flight. Almost everything was mechanical—each article warranted to do what it pretended to do in order to have its appeal for the modern child.

Win was a child of yesterday; yet the big girl has always the little girl of the past asleep in her heart, ready to wake up on the slightest encouragement, and she felt the thrill of Toyland. If when she was small she could ever have dreamed of spending her days in a place like this, she would have bartered her chance of heaven for it—heaven as described in her father's sermons. It was another of life's little | | 182 ironies that her lot should be cast in a world of toys when she was too old to prefer it to paradise.

Sadie and Ursus had used up the little time they had in warning her what she would have to expect in Toys.

"There are some punk fellers who'll try it on with you—pinch or tickle you as you pass by, and say things not fit for a dandy guyl like you to hear," the lion-tamer had hurriedy explained. "But don't you stand for it. You don't have to! Just hand 'em along to me, and I'll make 'em sorry their fathers ever seen their mothers."

Sadie's story of girl-life in Toyland was on the same lines, but with a different moral.

"Don't you tell tales out o' school, no matter what any of the chaps do," was her advice. "I kin hold my own, and I bet you can. You may be a looker, but you ain't anybody's baby doll. If a feller calls you 'childie' or 'sweet lamb' or tells you you're the peacherino in the peach basket, don't you answer back, but just smile and wend your ways. If he goes so far as to put his arm around your waist or take a nip with his nails out of your arm or hip, why, then you can land him one on the napper if nobody's lookin'. But, all the same, the chaps mostly ain't so black at heart. They just try to decorate their grey lives a bit, and if those sort of things didn't happen to me once or twicet a day, why I'd be discouraged and think I'd lost my fatal beauty."

For some subtle reason, however, "chaps" did not pinch or tickle Win or slip arms round her waist. One confided to another that he guessed there was nothing "didding" in that direction, and he'd as soon make love to the Statue of Liberty as an English Maypole; which was as well, for from the first moment of her entrance on the scene the lion-tamer kept his eyes open. There were all sorts and conditions of men | | 183 in Toys, but he was among them as a giant among pygmies; and even if the ex-ship's steward, the ex-trolley driver, the conjurer out of a job, and the smart young men who had been "clerking since they were in long pants" had wished to try their luck with Win, Earl Usher would have shown them the wisdom of turning their eyes elsewhere.

The news soon ran round Toyland that "Winsome Winnie" was Usher's girl. The male "assistants " did no worse than call her by her Christian name (they must have caught it from Sadie), and that was no cause of offence to girl from man in a department-store. Every girl in a department shared by men was "Kitty" or "Winnie," "Sadie" or "Sweetie," while the men expected to be addressed as Mr. Jones or Mr. Brown, except by their own particular "petsies." Sadie was popular with all, even the "permanences," who considered themselves above the "holiday extras." The ex-steward, a good-looking young Swede, had offered to get her a dandy place as stewardess when he felt ready to sniff salt water again, and though she wasn't "taking any," and often boxed his ears, she made "dates" with him for dance-halls after business hours, especially one called Dreamland, which was too lovely for "wuyds." There were movies, and you could dance till 'most morning. Real swell gentlemen, who wore red badges to show "they was all right," came up and asked if they could "interdooce" other gents to you in case you'd come in alone and didn't have friends. But Sadie always did have friends.

The red-haired girl who had from the first been a haunting mystery for Win was in the toy department. Her name was Lily Leavitt, and—as Sadie had already told Win—she was "chucking herself " at Earl Usher's head. At first Miss Leavitt "lamped" Miss Child "something awful." But on the English girl's third | | 184 Toy day a thing happened which converted the enemy into a friend—an all too devoted friend.

It was now so near Christmas that in the department devoted to toys and games you could not have placed a sheet of foreign note-paper between mothers (with a sprinkling of aunts and grandmas) unless you wanted it torn to pieces before you could count "One!" Children were massed together in a thick, low-growing underbrush, and of their species only babies were able to rise, like cream, to the top. The air, or rather the atmosphere (since all the air had been breathed long ago) was to the nerves what tow is to fire. Nobody could be in it for ten minutes without wanting to hit somebody else or push somebody else's child, little brute! out of the way.

What with heat, the rage for buying, impatience to get in, and impatience to get out, the fragrance of pine and holly decorations, the smell of hot varnish and hot people and cheap furs, the babble of excited voices and shrieks of exhausted children, it was the true Christmas spirit. Peter Rolls's store in general, and the toy department in particular, were having what would be alluded to later in advertisements as an "unprecedented success."

Before Win came the folding chairs for "assistants" had all been broken or out of order. But no doubt (said Sadie) because of some lingering suspicion that she might, after all, be an anti-sweat spy, the springs or hinges were mysteriously repaired throughout the department. By law any girl could sit down. By unwritten law she mustn't, yet there were the chairs as good as gold and fresh as paint. They were even pointed out to Win, but in the whirl of things the moment after she forgot their very existence and never had time to remember it again.

That third day in Toys was the most appalling she | | 185 had known of all the long, wild days at Peter Rolls's since coming in as an extra holiday hand. Dozens of customers clamoured for her at once. Each female creature seemed to have as many hands as Briareus, all reaching for things they wanted or gesticulating and brandishing money or snatching for change. If each distracted girl had had half a dozen highly trained astral bodies with which to serve these terrible ladies it would not have been enough. More ladies would have come.

Yet (Win noticed with wondering admiration) some of the girls, those most experienced and less easily rattled, did find opportunities to polish their nails and pat their hair. They would turn as if to find something "in stock," stoop quickly, taking advantage of the crowd behind the counters, snatch out of their stockings tiny mirrors and bags of powder or rouge and "fix themselves up," while their anxious customers supposed they were diving for a toy. These were the girls who kept their own perfumed soap and scent-bottles in their lockers and could afford becoming hats, whether or no they had money to buy new underclothes and stockings when the old ones gave out.

Win, however, had neither experience enough nor desire to find time for personal matters. She gave her whole soul to her work and wore that pleasant Christmas smile which floor-walkers wish to see on sales-ladies' faces. But her smile was only skin-deep. She had never liked her sister women less—cross, silly, snapping, inconsiderate things, strutting and pushing about in skins and plumes of animals far more agreeable and beautiful than themselves! Dangling all over with poor little heads of dead creatures, just as if they were moving butcher-shops, and apparently without a sense of humour to tell them what idiots they looked.

Yes, idiots! That was the word. And if they had | | 186 enough humour to put on a thumb-nail, could they wear the stick-out and stick-up ornaments on their hats they did wear, to prod each others' eyes? No, they couldn't! And what with feathers standing straight out behind, and long corsets down to their knees, they could never lean back against anything, no matter how tired they were. So, what with inconvenient dresses and high heels and thin silk stockings and tight shoes and chiffon blouses on winter days, no wonder men wouldn't let them have the vote!

Win was transformed from an incipient suffragette into a temporarily venomous woman-hater when a customer made her show nine dozen dolls and then minced away saying that Peter Rolls never did have anything worth buying. Another patronizingly bestowed five cents upon Win for her "trouble" after making her change three toys bought yesterday and taking half an hour over it. Altogether, when Winifred Child happened to think of Mrs. Belmont's building with the great figure of a woman falling down the front of it, she would have liked the statue to drop to earth with a crash.

Once in a while, contriving to pass near, Ursus tried to whisper a word of encouragement:

"You're a Wonderchild, you are! Say, it don't spoil your looks bein' tired. You're the picture postal, you are! Never you mind these dames. Say the word and we'll make up with a large time to-night. I'll blow you through all the best movies and stake you to an ice-cream soda. Do you get yes?"

Despite his well-meant solicitude, however, Win's vitality was at an exceedingly low ebb towards five o'clock in the afternoon of the third day. There had been no time to go out for an alleged luncheon and a breath of fresh air. She had eaten nothing since her breakfast of hot chocolate at a soda fountain, save a poached egg in the employés' restaurant, and, as Sadie | | 187 said, it wasn't safe to accept an egg from the Hands unless you'd met the hen socially and knew her past. Since four o'clock the exile had been thinking passionately of England, with its millions of women sitting down—actually sitting down! to tea. And then, suddenly, a man pushed aside a female thing who was being cross because she couldn't find a doll which said "Papa" and "Mama" in German.

"As you can't get what you want, madam, I'm sure you won't mind my taking your place," apologized a cheerful voice. "Madam" was so dumbfounded that she gave way. And Win, thankful for a change of sex in her customer, had put on her polite sales-lady air before she realized that she was face to face with Jim Logan, her motoring acquaintance of the park.

"Howdy do?" he inquired, and hastily added: "I want a doll. I don't care whether she can swear in German or not. Though I do want a little conversation—with somebody."

Money could not be lost to the house of Rolls because one of its female servants wished to snub an admirer. Mr. Logan was even better dressed than when Win had seen him before. He looked rich enough to buy Peter Rolls's star doll, price five hundred dollars, with trousseau. Nevertheless Miss Child determined to outwit him.

"What kind of a doll?" she asked in a business-like tone, showing no sign of recognition. "For a small girl or a large girl? And about what price do you wish to pay?"

"Doll for a middle-sized girl," replied the customer, his twinkling eyes on the young woman serving him. "I like large girls best, girls exactly your size and age, twenty at most, and warranted to look seventeen if given a day's rest and a pretty hat and a supper at Sherry's—with the right man. I don't mind how much | | 188 trouble I take looking for a doll any more than I mind the trouble of looking for a girl. This is a little sister of mine who has to have a doll. I like other men's sisters better, but——"

"I think I know just what you want," said Win briskly. "If you'll be good enough to wait here half a minute, I'll see that you get it."

Like a flash she was off, looking for Sadie. But Sadie was too far away. Win didn't want the redoubtable Tobias to scold her for neglecting customers, as she had heard him scold Lily Leavitt the day before, when Lily was trying to flirt with Earl Usher. Close by was Miss Lily Leavitt herself, looking bored to the verge of extinction by an old lady who wished advice in choosing five cheap presents for five dear grandchildren. "Miss Leavitt," Win whispered, "would it be possible for you to take my man, who wants a doll for a middle-aged sister—I mean, middle-sized—and let me attend to your customer?"

Miss Leavitt threw a green-eyed glance at the man indicated, and said: "Ginks! Ye-h!" as quickly as she could draw breath.

The immediate and brilliant success of the stratagem was as reviving to tired Win as the encounter in the park had been. Her splendid vitality came bubbling to the surface again, and she showed such an interest in selecting the five grandchildren's presents that the old lady thanked Providence for the exchange. No time, no trouble was too much, and Grandma joyously wallowed in layers of toys produced for her inspection.

Now and then, when the old lady was choosing between an aeroplane and a train of cars, or a schoolroom and a Noah's ark, Win took an eyelash-veiled look at Miss Leavitt and her customer. He had apparently bought one doll, veiled like a harem woman, and was hesitating over another. The grandmother of five was not the | | 189 only person needing advice, it seemed. The brother of one middle-sized sister was evidently demanding it from Miss Leavitt.

In any case, their heads were close together over a Tango Tea doll who tried to look as if she had been dressed by Poiret. It stood to reason that a man might want a woman to tell him whether that was the sort of thing a middle-sized child would like, but though their heads were bent over the doll, their eyes turned occasionally towards Miss Child.

"Keep the change and buy yourself and your friends some little thing for Christmas," Win heard Logan say at last when, discouraged by the interminable length of Grandma's visit, he had resigned himself to go away.

The girl glanced involuntarily at Miss Leavitt's hand, which was clenched into a fist. In it was a crisp-looking new greenback on which at one end she thought she saw the word "Ten."

Ten dollars! The man had made Lily Leavitt a present of ten dollars, and she had accepted, it! Would he have tried to do the same with her, or would he have attempted to be even more generous if she had not been chaperoned by the grandmother of five? Also, was it just the Christmas spirit, or had Lily done something special to earn the money?

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