By Alice Morrey Bailey
ALYN FORDYCE, struggles against her husband,
JOHN FORDYCE, who insists upon continuing his work – which he loves – at the Milton Nurseries at a salary of $150 a month when Alyn has been used to $500 a month which he used to earn at work which he did not like. she thinks him selfish not to compensate her for her inability to have children, and is annoyed with his enthusiasm over a sport, or mutation, on an apricot tree – one that blossoms earlier than the rest. She wishes John could meet
JUDITH WYATT, whom she has met by chance, a young woman of good breeding who is to become a mother. Humiliated by her friends, who know of her reduced financial status and her refusal to admit it, Alyn decides to get a divorce. However, when she goes to fill the appointment with
JUDGE OLDHAM, her lawyer, she overhears him denouncing a woman in her same set of circumstances. She hurries out of his office without waiting to see him, but abandons divorce plans and decides to get a job. In her fruitless search for work, she is surprised and shocked to learn that she has no specific training to equip her for the business world. She also learns that a person of pride cannot play upon friendships for favors, as she has insisted that John do. She is stung by John’s remark that her family’s innate gift is selling. Though she has been repelled by it, Alyn determines to get a job at selling, and seizes the opportunity to sell a hat to another customer in Charlotte Chapeaux, a hat shop where she has gone to purchase a hat.
“Now I’m in for it,” thought Alyn, for she was as much a stranger in this store as was the customer to whom she had sold the hat. But a sense of elation possessed her. Now what of Mr. Hendley’s direct challenge to her ability!
She would certainly have to answer to this tall, too blond woman who had appeared suddenly and noiselessly from somewhere in the rear of the store. The woman must be Charlotte, of Charlotte-Chapeaux, and she was flashing a warning to Alyn to keep up the pretense until the sale was safely made.
Alyn took the money the girl proffered and handed it automatically to the woman. The transaction was soon completed, and the door closed upon the girl. The two women looked at each other and burst into laughter – Alyn not too heartily; too much had happened too quickly. Still it was an amusing situation, and it was also a great relief to Alyn to see the reaction of the woman to her highhandedness.
“If that wasn’t something!” gasped the woman. “My other clerk has gone to lunch.”
“Are you …?”
“Charlotte. Lottie to you. I saw you come in, but my secretary became suddenly ill. I thought for a few minutes she was going to pass out altogether. I couldn’t leave her. When I saw that girl come in I was fit to be tied, but I had to get Judy on the couch.”
She sank to a chair, breathless with mirth over the turn of events, slapping her knee in a mannish gesture. “I’ve done the same thing myself – walked into a store and been taken for a clerk.” Alyn was amazed at herself, at this bizarre situation. She had actually made a sale when only yesterday she had been horrified by the mere thought of selling. Finally, she was laughing with and quite as heartily as this odd woman whose expensive clothing and careful makeup were so evidently a thin and confining veneer over a somewhat coarse nature; who slapped her knee with a too-wide hand.
Lottie wiped her eyes with a filmy handkerchief. “That was a pretty piece of work. I was scared to death you’d let her take that other number. She’d have looked like old Aunt Abigail and would never have come back; besides, that was a nine dollar hat. You don’t want a job, do you?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Alyn, “I do.”
“I knew it,” shouted Lottie. “I’ve never seen it fail. If you see a woman dressed like a million and with a manner like Mrs. Astorbilt herself, you can bet your bottom dollar she’s a working girl. Not one in a thousand of those old ‘money-bags’ can tell a hat from a coal scuttle. I don’t know where you learned, but you do know how to fit hats. Can you start in the morning?”
“Why, yes,” said Alyn, somewhat dazed.
“Well, then, come back and meet my secretary; she keeps the books, too. She’ll get a laugh out of this, and she needs one just as much as I did, poor kid.”
“And I,” thought Alyn. That laugh had released something taut within her.
“No, don’t get up,” Lottie said to the girl on the office lounge.
“I want you to meet our new clerk, Mrs. …”
“Fordyce,” said Alyn, not believing her eyes. This girl on the couch was the one who had so impressed her as a woman of wealth and family background – Judith Wyatt. Judith Wyatt, who was going to have a baby; whose husband was dead; working in this stuffy inner office! No wonder she was ill!
Alyn went home that amazing afternoon full of mixed feelings. “A shopgirl! A common shopgirl!” she told herself. No, she wouldn’t do it. It would be an easy matter in the morning to reach for the telephone and thank Lottie of Charlotte-Chapeaux, but tell her very kindly that she couldn’t consider the position.
It would no doubt please John if she accepted it; it would be a fulfillment of the vague theories he was always propounding of late. It would probably be his interpretation of a “dominating interest” for her. Then, too, there was the extra money that it would bring in.
But John was not pleased. When she told him over the dessert of the afternoon’s happenings, he looked at her in unmistakable consternation.
“Alyn dear! You mean to say you sold a hat by accident, and this Lottie gave you a job on the strength of it?”
Alyn felt herself coloring defensively. “Yes, why not? I had been looking for work for days and had given up hope. This fell as a gift in my lap.”
“I didn’t know you were looking for work, darling. You didn’t tell me.”
Alyn was exasperated. Why was it that anger piled up in spite of her whenever she talked with John?
“No, I didn’t think it necessary, John. But you surely aren’t surprised after all you have said about my getting a ‘dominating interest.’” How she despised that phrase!
“Yes, but sweet! That has nothing whatever to do with this. You selling? Every instinct you have is against it.”
“I can’t see that it is any more degrading than your …” Alyn began and stopped. She wouldn’t bicker. How did John know how she felt about selling? “Selling is the life of all business,” she informed him frigidly.
“True,” said John. “But that isn’t the point. Regardless of the merit of any job or profession, and selling is honorable enough, the point is in you, not the job – your view of it, your approach to it, your happiness and interest in it. Don’t you see, dear?”
“No, I don’t,” said Alyn flatly. She was not being difficult. She didn’t see. Certainly one couldn’t just walk into an establishment and say: “That person is doing the job I like to do, and I want it.” One must take what one could get. It was likely just that John thought a woman’s place was in the home. Besides, she could sell.
“I’m sorry you were so hasty in your action. I wish you had consulted me,” John was saying. “I have had your problems on my mind more than you know. I thought I had the glimmer of a solution.”
“Such as?” questioned Alyn icily.
“I believe that basically your need is exactly what it was in the beginning – the need of every normal woman for children.”
But John was treading on dangerous ground. It was cruel of him to pry into this old wound, silly to even talk of anything so hopeless.
“I’d rather not discuss it,” she said so sharply that John was silent and looked hurt. If he was, she didn’t care. “I am going to work for Lottie in the morning,” she said with finality.
After that nothing could stop her. In the days that followed an absurd little nursery rhyme ran through her mind:
“There was an old woman as I’ve heard tell.
She went to the market her eggs to sell.
She went to the market all on a market day,
And she fell asleep on the king’s highway.
There came by a peddler whose name was Stout.
He cut her petticoats all round-about;
He cut her petticoats up to the knees
Which made the old woman to shiver and freeze.
When the little woman first did awake
She began to shiver and she began to shake;
She began to wonder and she began to cry,
‘Oh, dearie dearie me! This is none of I.
But if it be I, as I hope it be,
I have a little dog at home and he’ll know me.
And if it be I, he’ll wag his little tail,
And if it be not I, he’ll loudly bark and wail.’
Home went the little woman all in the dark,
Up got the little dog, and he began to bark;
He began to bark, so she began to cry,
‘Oh, dearie dearie me, this is none of I.’”
Yes, the poor, foolish old woman was in no more of a quandary with her lost identity than was Alyn. Alyn Merriweather – clerking in a store! Clerkship was a far cry from the Merriweather idea of finance. What would her friends think? She hoped fervently that none of them would ever come in.
She had been employed at Charlotte-Chapeaux for a week and had come to know the other employees: the two sales-girls – Mrs. Pinkney and Ivy Walters – and Jim, the old janitor who took as a personal affront every odd scrap dropped carelessly on the heavy carpets of the store. The two nondescript women who made the hats in an unbeautiful back room remained anonymous to Alyn who hadn’t much contact with them.
Judith Wyatt, looking up from her couch that first day, had remembered Alyn. Her drained face had lighted, and she had smiled with genuine welcome, if somewhat tremulously. She offered no excuse for her disability then, but a few days later she had said:
“I’m sorry that I was unable to be more on the welcoming committee the day you came, but I hope you have gathered that I’m glad you came to work here. You are one of my own kind. I was somewhat surprised, however, to see you here. I had pictured you in one of those huge houses – not … not a working person.”
“It’s odd,” confided Alyn. “I followed you up the hill that day trying to place you. I still can’t. Who is your family?”
Judith was quiet a moment. She sighed. “No one you know, I’m afraid. I was born on the wrong side of the tracks and brought to the age of fourteen on boiled potatoes and water gravy. I knew very little of my father. He often left us for weeks at a time. One day he went away and we thought he had just gone on another vacation from us, that he would come back as usual. Months later we learned that he had died in an accident and been buried in a potter’s field for lack of identification. I think that finished Mother’s pride. I believe that she had had more than the usual amount to begin with, but she suffered so much humiliation and neglect that she died inside long before she passed away of an illness that proper care could have cured.”
Alyn was appalled. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought … your voice, your manner …”
“Acquired,” said Judith. “I inherited one thing. My mother told me that intelligence, honor, and a kind heart were the building materials for almost anything; that her life was done, but mine was beginning, and that I had no one to rely on but myself. I added industry and put myself through school. It wasn’t easy, but here I am. My success story,” she finished whimsically. “I wouldn’t talk to another soul as I am talking to you. You seem so much like the sister I’ve always wanted.”
The story shocked Alyn. She could just see the serious-minded little Judith, ill-clothed, ill-fed, probably laughed at by other children, and her heart ached. They had come from far distant points, these two, but an intangible something had drawn them together. Alyn had the feeling that anything she might try to explain to Judith would be understandably received, that somewhere, sometime she had known Judith, that they were truly sisters. Her own generations of breeding and Judith’s lack of them were swept away in the gentle force of this affinity.
In the days that followed, Judith was invaluable to Alyn, not only as a friend, but as a source of education in her new business. Lottie was as hearty in her disapproval as in her praise. She had no inhibitions whatever, and gave vent to every emotion that swept her. The woman never ceased to amaze and amuse Alyn, who was both repelled and intrigued by the combined crudity and genius of her employer.
“Isn’t she priceless,” Judith would say, as Lottie would put on a grand manner and awe some timid soul into buying a hat. Then she and Alyn would exchange glances when Lottie would come back into the office and mimic with inanity the gestures and facial expressions of her victim, clapping a hat on the back of her head and staring at her image with vacuous admiration. She could turn the vitriol of her tongue upon one of the hapless employees as easily as she could let swords of honeyed sweetness drip upon a lucrative customer, in the same breath directing some caustic observation at her retreating back. She could, too, in a fit of remorse, go out and buy some extravagant gift for the same hapless employee.
Now, it was Ivy Walters who had given a customer a dollar too much change: “My overhead would make the national budget look like small change; it costs a mint to stock a place like this. You can’t buy broadloom carpets and plate-glass mirrors at the five and ten. People like the Meades and Haywoods who could stuff their pillows with greenbacks don’t pay me from one year’s end to another. And that isn’t enough – my clerks pass out dollars as if they were dimes.”
Even Judith didn’t escape: “My hair’ll get too white to take a bleach, the way that girl worries me. What use is it for the doctor to tell me she should get out of this office? I can’t do a thing with her. I’ve talked until I sound like a phonograph. Why doesn’t her doctor show her the score instead of blasting at me? Who am I to put myself against a will like that? Besides, I’m not her mother.”
So far Alyn had miraculously escaped, and as miraculously held up her end of the sales. It was a point of pride with her to do so, and she used wiles she didn’t know she had. She remembered and avoided doing the things that had always annoyed her when being fitted, and followed the lead of her first hat-selling experience in frankly telling a customer if a hat didn’t suit her. She was rewarded soon, for a woman came in and asked for her: “I want Mrs. Fordyce, please. My friend bought a hat here the other day and, my dear! It’s so comforting to know there is a clerk in town who won’t sell you a garden straw and convince you it’s from Fifth Avenue.”
Yet with all the diverting presence of Lottie, the real joy of knowing Judith, and the scores of interesting people that trickled in – lone shoppers, bosom friends who came in pairs, an occasional bride perching a hat on her head for the inspection of an adoring husband who could see only her eyes, and the tweedy groups of college girls who came in shining-eyed, clattering droves – yet there was something lacking in complete satisfaction. She hated admitting, even to herself, that John was right. Whatever work like this held for other people – Mrs. Pinkney who looked forward to owning a shop of her own, Ivy Walters who aspired to become a buyer – it had no future for Alyn Fordyce. It was, as John put it, simply another palliative, an excuse for not facing reality.
Alyn had her first week’s check and was amazed that the long hours, the long days, had yielded her only eighteen dollars, scarcely enough to buy a hat or a pair of shoes and cover the extra cost of a cleaning woman for the apartment. Looking up from it, she had encountered Lottie’s eyes.
“I thought …” she began.
“I know,” said Lottie. “You can’t take in being paid eighteen right from the start, can you, kid? Some of these skin-flint joints pay not a cent over the law, sixteen a week, and some of them discount Sundays and get by with it. I’ve been a working girl all my life, and I know how it goes.”
Alyn tucked the check in her purse and said no more, but it didn’t seem fair. She went home at night so drained physically by the hours on her feet, so drained nervously from contact with people that she hardly saw her lovely apartment any more, much less enjoyed it. Lint collected around the rugs between visits of the cleaning woman, and meals were sketchy and unsatisfying.
Then, one day, like the proverbial rain, two of her friends came into the store on the same day – first, Cecile Borden, looking astonishingly chic and alive.
“Alyn Merriweather!” she exclaimed, giving Alyn a quick squeeze and reverting to Alyn’s maiden name. “It’s ages since I saw you. You’re as slim as ever and not a day older,” she said without envy. “How do you do it?”
“You should know. You look wonderful yourself. Such wonderful clothes! Jim must …”
“Jim doesn’t make a cent more than he did, Alyn,” Cecile said frankly, “and he never will. But Jim is a good man, steady. I’ve learned to manage better than I did. It keeps us fighting to keep the children in school and decently kept, but we make the grade … Thayne was valedictorian last year. All of their marks are good … and that’s worthwhile fighting for. Our home life is wonderful.”
“Don’t you miss the parties – meeting important people?”
“We do meet important people – educators and the like. I’m the president of the P.T.A. At first I did miss the old crowd, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Alyn, but I wouldn’t be in the middle of that again for anything on earth. I don’t envy you your continuous ride on that merry-go-round.”
Alyn suddenly found herself envying Cecile – her pride in reality; her knowledge of purpose.
“Do you suppose the clerks will care if we help ourselves? I seldom buy my hats here – too expensive. I do come in for the style, though, and then I usually find I must buy at cheaper places.”
Mrs. Pinkney was closing a sale. Ivy Walters was discussing an alteration with a customer, and Alyn perceived that Cecile didn’t realize she was a clerk. She could have passed it thus, but suddenly she didn’t want to fly under false colors – not with Cecile.
“Cecile, I am a clerk. I work here.
“No!” said Cecile. “What happened?”
Alyn told her about John. “I can’t keep up my end of the social bargain. I thought I’d like to work.”
It was different when Bea McIntyre came in. Alyn, rearranging hats on their pedestals, looked up and saw her coming, and fled before Bea could see her. After Bea was gone, she came out of the cloakroom to find Lottie mottled with anger.
“Where were you when that customer was in?”
“Hiding,” confessed Alyn. “I didn’t want her to see me. She was a friend of mine.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Lottie. “If you can’t sell to your friends, who can you sell to? This isn’t a social register. This is a business establishment. That makes two today, both sales muffed. Maybe a difference of $25 on the books doesn’t matter!”
Alyn didn’t deign to answer. She was hot and cold in turns. No one had ever, in all her life, spoken thus to her.
“I will not be talked to in such a fashion,” she thought, “and by so common a person as Lottie.” She longed to tell John about it, to have his comforting assurance that she was right. Suddenly she knew what she was going to do. She was going to quit this awful job.