Only a Shop Girl
By Agnes Boulton Burton
Stories of shop girls have rather gone out of style lately. But then Minnie was not an ordinary shop girl.
To begin with, she was not what is called pretty. She was tall and rather thin and pale. Her hair, in this day of fashionable head-dresses, she wore in a good-sized pompadour. She appeared as a rule to be rather tired and disagreeably aloof, and quite cynical. And at times she could be positively rude.
Then again, she was not the conventional, much written about shop girl, who works in a large city department store, with several thousand other girls; seeing every day grand ladies, and ladies who have no right to be grand, carelessly fingering goods; listening to the other girls comparing notes on silk stockings and silk underwear; or tremblingly avoiding the insinuating advances of the floor-walker.
No, Minnie had never in her life been out of a town of fifteen thousand inhabitants. The store where she worked employed about ten girls beside herself. And as for silk underwear, she had never worn it, and only once possessed a pair of silk stockings.
But if she did not have her temptations, Minnie had her dislikes. Most of all she disliked Mrs. Boffkins, wife of the proprietor of the store.
Mrs. Boffkins was a large stout person always attired in silk. In winter she wore in addition, furs and a plush coat. She rustled as she walked, and she gave forth as she moved an odor of perfume. Her dresses always fitted too tightly across her bust, and her hips were enormous. But in spite of this, Minnie's dislike of her was based on envy.
Envy, because Mrs. Boffkins possessed all the things that Minnie desired. She had a large house, servants, a limousine; all the money she wanted to spend.
Minnie would have died before she would have admitted that any of these things interested her. But every time that Mrs. Boffkins sailed down the aisle using her lorgnette which she did not need, something in Minnie's soul would snap; and immediately her chin would go up in the air, her lips become composed into a sharp sourness and her blue eyes take on a hauteur of lifted brow and drooping lids that was even more distinguished than Mrs. Boffkins' best brand.
Strangely, Mrs. Boffkins never noticed Minnie. Her eyes were all for the prettier girls. She looked at all pretty girls with suspicion—deep suspicion. And until they proved that they were harmless, by being engaged, or in love, or deeply religious, Mrs. Boffkins kept her eye upon them.
All of which of course means that fat Mrs. Boffkins was jealous of her husband. She was quite right in being jealous, because, in spite of his little bald head and his short fat legs, Mr. Eli Boffkins was a fickle husband. To be truthful he was tired of his wife. She was old and she was fat and she was fussy. He had different ideas in his head—very different ideas. . . .
In the Boffkins store the girls were always coming and going; one week a new face at the notions counter, the next, blue eyes instead of brown at laces. But Minnie never changed. She had been there six years—and still Mrs. Boffkins had never noticed her!
Ah, the irony of life! Every night, when she was. putting away stock, after the outer doors had been closed, Mr. Boffkins would come and lean against Minnie's counter. He would watch her hopelessly, touching his small moustache with his fingers. Minnie would give him a look of scorn.
"Will you please not stand here, Mr. Boffkins? Do you want to make talk?"
"I go to all the counters every evening, Minnie. . . ."
There would probably be a shrugging silence on Minnie's part.
"Say . . . don't be so disagreeable. God! I wish I could marry you, little one. You know I mean it, don't you? You know I ain't fooling, Miss White. . . . Look at all th' money I've got laying 'round loose. Ain't you going to let me do something for you? Nobody'd ever know. . . ."
Minnie would droop her eyelids or compress her lips.
"Say, Mr. B., will you ever quit! Wait till your wife dies, and I'll marry you quick enough. None of this other talk, either, please! I guess I'm too old to be led astray by you or any one else!"
After a while he would move on to his inspection of
other counters. He was rather afraid of talk. But more than
anything in the world he wanted Minnie White.
Her charm was something that was missed entirely at first. But when it struck it struck deep. Some women are like that. One might have even surmised, from the description of Minnie, that she was without charm.
Eli Boffkins had not particularly noticed her for a long time. But when he did, he had been curiously upset. He had argued to himself that it could not be true—that what he wanted was a little, young pretty girl. But he had found himself making all sorts of excuses for talking to her. He had gradually become hopelessly intrigued with Minnie's odd, bitter-sweetness.
His passion for her (for it amounted to that) was daily becoming more hopeless, and he grew more and more intolerant of Mrs. Boffkins.
To Minnie, going home every night to a small rented room—she was an orphan —washing her own blouses down in the landlady's kitchen; making over her last year's suit into this year's dress; to Minnie, twenty-four and bitterly conscious of it, the fact of there being a present Mrs. Boffkins was a tragedy.
She knew that her fat admirer meant what he said, when he spoke of his willingness to marry her. And Minnie would have jumped at the chance—married him, without love, in a minute. She was not in love with any one else. There, for her plucking, was everything she wanted—if it were not for Mrs. Boffkins.
As for that other way, the way that Eli Boffkins, knowing he couldn't marry her, wanted her to consider, Minnie was firm as bed-rock. It wasn't that she was particularly moral, any more than she was unmoral. She would have had nothing to say against another girl who had done the same thing. Knowing the niggardliness of a life like her own, she would not have blamed any girl. But in her own soul she had some curious inhibition against such a course. She simply wasn't going to do it, that was all. And she told Mr. Boffkins so.
So the more eagerly he talked about how much he loved her, and how much he could do for her, and how nice she'd look in pretty clothes, and so on and on, the more Minnie would shrug her shoulders and curl her lip and tell him to get out.
But sometimes she could not help feeling that she was foolish, for Mr. Boffkins had so very much money. She had these thoughts, particularly, on days when her feet would get wet walking to the store; or it would be cold and her nose would become irritatingly red.
Meanwhile, with that curious intuition of womankind, which often consists of being close observers of facts not meant for their perusal, Mrs. Boffkins became convinced that her husband had some particular woman on his mind.
She worried over this so that she grew perceptibly thinner. It was not a becoming kind of thinness, however, and it did Mrs. Boffkins no good. Indeed her husband began to avoid her more conspicuously than he had ever done before.
She set out, with characteristic thoroughness to discover this woman. She kept things bitterly silent, but in her own heart she was planning a campaign of hate. She even had details mapped out. When she discovered this person she would reveal her as she was. She would let the entire fifteen thousand inhabitants of the town see her in her shame and nakedness. She would bring forth everything, get the hussy turned from her home, ignored by people on the streets, driven from town if possible. And then, forgivingly, lovingly, like a true Christian wife she would take the subdued Eli Boffkins back to her own broad bosom.
Having tried all snooping, prying and following tactics without success, Mrs. Boffkins made a clever move. It was desperate, but Mrs. Boffkins was both desperate and determined. She employed a lady detective from a New York agency to come down and gather data.
This young lady was exceedingly shrewd. She, also, had an enormous amount of intuition. Without very much trouble she got a job in Mr. Boffkins' store. Then she set herself to studying Mr. Boffkins.
In just one week she went to Mrs. Boffkins with the facts. Mr. Boffkins, she said, was infatuated (she used that word) with Minnie.
Then she returned to New York, where she was never conscious, of course, of the enormous difference she had made in the future life of one Minnie White.
Mrs. Boffkins, outraged, pale with indignation, dressed herself in her very best brocaded silk, took her lorgnette, and went to the store. She could not place Minnie mentally. But she had the description of her, her name, the counter behind which she worked.
Raising her lorgnette, disdainful and haughty, Mrs. Boffkins sailed down the aisle past Minnie's counter. Then she saw Minnie and her heart thumped with indignation. She stared at Minnie through her lorgnette.
Minnie, who had never before drawn the attention of those hated eyes, rose superbly to the occasion, and glared back through pale, drooping lashes.
Mrs. Boffkins, out of breath, trembling and indignant, went to the bookkeeper in the back of the store and demanded Minnie's home address.
A little later her limousine drove down the noisy, untidy street on which Minnie lived. Seated upon the padded leather cushions, Mrs. Boffkins went over indignantly in her mind just what she was going to do.
Minnie's pale, drooping lashes kept intruding themselves on her memory. That girl . . . that hussy! She had half expected to find her husband enamoured of some young thing. Such a thought had always enraged her. But now that she had found that Minnie was quite old enough to take care of herself she was even more excited and enraged.
She rang determinedly at the rusty door-bell, trying meanwhile to peer through the dingy lace curtains. After a moment a gray, tired woman, staring curiously, opened the door. She held in one hand a soiled towel on which she was drying her soapy fingers.
Mrs. Boffkins spoke condescendingly: at the same time with an overdone look of sisterly pity.
"Isn't this where a—a certain Minnie White lives?"
The woman's jaw dropped.
"Why yes, she does."
Mrs. Boffkins continued abruptly:
"I would like to talk to you for a few moments about that young lady!"
"Come into the parlor." The woman opened a small door at her right. They moved into a small, chill, gloomy room. "Has anything happened to Miss White?" she asked anxiously.
Mrs. Boffkins sat down upon a creaky sofa, her silks rustling.
"Happened to her!" she exclaimed indignantly. "What could happen to a low woman like her, Mrs.—er—"
"—Smith," put in the other. Her eyes were open with wonder.
"Mrs. Smith. Thank you. I am Mrs. Boffkins!" An air of glory seemed to puff that lady's tight chest. "I don't wonder that you look surprised, Mrs. Smith ! The girl is undoubtedly a hypocrite—a low hypocrite! She has been making love to my husband, trying to lead him astray, that is all!" Mrs. Boffkins’ voice rose higher. "I want to warn you, Mrs. Smith, that unless you want your home dragged into a disgraceful scandal, turn her out at once! I'll run that girl out of town before I'm through with her!"
"Minnie White bad?" Mrs. Smith stared at her visitor. "Why say, I've known her for six years. She's about the quietest—"
"'Still waters run deep!'" quoted Mrs. Boffkins furiously, glaring at her hostess. "She's no good! If she hasn't been meeting my husband here, she's been meeting him somewhere else, that's all."
Suddenly the pale, tired, lanky Mrs. Smith fired up. She rose, brandishing her dishcloth. Her voice grew shrill.
"Meetin' him here! What sort of a place are you tryin' to make out my house to be, Mrs. Boffkins? You may be rich, but I'm as good as you any day, madam!"
"How dare—" Mrs. Boffkins grew purple.
"How dare I? You'll see if I dare! Lemme' tell you, Miss White has been here six years, and never out at night 'nless one of my kids has been along with her. She's a hard working girl, that's what! An' until you've got something to prove she's goin' to stay right here. My husband'd say so, too!"
"You'll be sorry for this!" Mrs. Boffkins rose, trying to be majestic. She swept a look of scorn about the room. "You'll be sorry, my good woman!" Her fat, small face upheld, she swept to the door, out through the hall, down the unpainted steps and into her limousine.
"Back home!" she ordered sharply.
That night, unable to control herself any longer, Mrs. Boffkins had a terrible scene with her husband.
She told him what she knew about Minnie. She told him what she knew about himself. She grew red and tempestuous and finally violently wept.
Mr. Boffkins denied everything. He said that he had never even kissed Minnie. He refused to say that he would discharge her from the store. As far as he knew, he said, Minnie was a good, respectable girl.
All of which was quite true. For once in his life Mr. Boffkins was very proud that Minnie had not yielded one inch to his importuning.
Mrs. Boffkins, of course, would believe none of this. She dared not tell her husband about the detective, but she said that she had ample proof that he did love Minnie.
Mr. Boffkins shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigar.
Then Mrs. Boffkins called in her son Egbert who was playing solitaire in the dining-room, and before his father she told him the whole thing.
"Now you know the sort of man your father is!" she exclaimed.
Egbert looked very much embarrassed. He was a slight, nice-looking, rather timid boy of about twenty, and Mrs. Boffkins had kept him pretty well tied to her apron strings.
"You see what I have to suffer!" she went on, her handkerchief at her eyes. "It is always the same! We women struggle along, help a man, and then when we get a little older—"
"Say, look here, you married me because I had money, and you know it!" broke in Eli Boffkins cynically. "That talk don't go here, May."
Egbert looked uncomfortable. He knew that his father was right, but he sympathized with his mother. He felt sure that she must have some very good reason for making all this fuss. Egbert was very young.
As soon as he could he went back to the dining-room and continued his solitaire.
The next day at the store Minnie came in looking very much more defiant and perhaps a little paler than usual. She waited until Mr. Boffkins came up to her counter on his usual round of inspection.
"That wife of yours has been round to my boarding-house!" she began indignantly. Then she told him the rest of the story in angry haste. "Now you see—"
"She has, eh? I'll fix her!" Mr. Boffkins was annoyed and surprised. His chief emotion at that time was one of protection toward Minnie. "Say—this is fierce. Last night—"
And he told Minnie all about the row between himself and his wife.
"She even had to drag the boy in on it!" he finished.
Minnie went off to wait on a customer. A little later Mr. Boffkins came wandering back morosely.
"I don't see what we can do about it," he said gloomily, noticing the curve of Minnie's white neck where it rose from her dollar-twenty-nine blouse.
"We can't stop doin' what we've never done," observed Minnie briefly. "But—do I lose my job? Has she that much influence with you?"
Minnie, of course, did not lose her job. But Mrs. Boffkins no longer came to the store. She no longer spoke to her husband. Each day she grew more and more angry and bitter because she could find out nothing really wrong about either her husband or Minnie White.
The bomb that she had been waiting for years to explode refused to go off.
Determined on ruining Minnie's character, she had, after discovering that Minnie did go to church, gone to the ladies of that particular church and demanded that they make investigations. Which, much surprised, they did; and reported to Mrs. Boffkins, rather pityingly, that Minnie's reputation had always been excellent.
That night Mrs. Boffkins came home and wept.
She knew—she knew perfectly well that things were all wrong, but she just simply couldn't prove it!
Somehow she couldn't bear to bring herself to visit Minnie personally. She felt that at present Minnie was the victor.
But the determination grew in her that if she couldn't force Minnie to leave town, she ought to save her husband.
All at once she had an idea.
She sent for Egbert. When he arrived in her bedroom she was lying with a cloth over her forehead, her eyes closed.
She opened them wearily.
"Listen, Egbert," she said. "I cannot stand this any longer. Get your hat and coat on, dear, and go down to that woman's place on M street. I understand that she is usually home in the evenings." Here Mrs. Boffkins paused and sobbed.
"Great Heavens, Momma, what do you want me to say to her?" stammered Egbert, blushing furiously. "I can't do any good."
"You are a man now, no longer a boy!" returned Mrs. Boffkins, reproachfully. "Talk to her, Egbert! Give her a piece of your mind—of our mind. Tell her that she should leave the store. Tell her"—Mrs. Boffkins finished with a rush —"tell her that if she will go to New York and get a job I will give her a hundred dollars!"
"Egbert, my son! Are you, too, going to fail me?" Mrs. Boffkins moaned loudly and raised her hand to her head. "Tell her that I will give her a hundred dollars, Egbert."
Egbert, rather pale and shaky, did as his mother told him.
Meanwhile, with the wet towel across her brow, Mrs. Boffkins waited patiently for his return.
Nine o'clock came. . . . Ten. . . . Ten-thirty. . . . At a quarter to eleven Egbert walked into his mother's room, holding his hat in his hand. There was a rather sheepish expression on his face.
"Well, did you see her?" asked Mrs. Boffkins impatiently. She sat up and the wet towel fell off her head.
"Yes," said Egbert. He stood shifting from one foot to the other. He looked at his mother stupidly.
"Well, what did she say?" went on Mrs. Boffkins sharply.
"She won't take the hundred dollars. She says she never did you any harm and—"
"And what?" jerked out Mrs. Boffkins. "Do you mean to tell me that you stood there and let her talk to you like that—"
Egbert's eyes fell to the carpet.
"I couldn't help it," he said fretfully.
"What else did she say?"
"Well—that she didn't know why she should have to leave her home town," continued Egbert. He glanced quickly at his mother. "Er—"
"The vile thing!" exploded Mrs. Boffkins. She was exceedingly wrought up. "You might have come straight home, Egbert, and told me. Where have you been?"
"Oh, I met Eddie Brown, and couldn't —er—get away from him very well," said Egbert easily.
It was his first lie.
Three weeks later Mrs. Boffkins determined to go and see Minnie herself.
She had been brought to this decision only by much misery and much reflection on Minnie's character. Minnie, she decided, was very deep.
In order to make this visit most impressive, Mrs. Boffkins dressed herself very carefully. She even bought a new hat for the occasion—a most expensive hat. Her white kid gloves were new, her patent leather boots creaked beneath her weight. And, of course, she carried her lorgnette.
She chose as the best time for this visit, Saturday afternoon. The store closed early on Saturdays.
And she wanted to go early, in order to catch Minnie in.
A little after one her limousine drew up before the little painted wooden house. The chauffeur descended and flung open the door. Mrs. Boffkins sailed up the ragged path, and as she had once before, rang vigorously at the bell.
She felt curiously cold and nervous as she waited—very different from the anger of her first visit. She was now, without acknowledging it, rather afraid of Minnie.
But she was more determined than ever to humiliate her. . . .
No one came to the door, and Mrs. Boffkins rang again. She began to grow impatient.
At last the door was opened cautiously. Mrs. Smith looked out. She appeared exactly the same as before, only she was wiping her hands on her apron instead of on a towel.
"Is Miss White in?" asked Mrs. Boffkins icily.
Mrs. Smith stared without answering. She seemed to be trying to make up her mind about something.
"Why—no, she isn't," she said, also icily.
"I see her!" snorted Mrs. Boffkins. She pushed past Mrs. Smith into the hall. "Ah!"
Minnie had been crossing to go from the dining room to the kitchen. On hearing Mrs. Boffkins' exclamation she paused; then she saw who it was.
"Oh—you!" she said ungraciously. She looked at the perturbed Mrs. Smith and a curious glance passed between them. Then she looked back at her visitor. "Do you want to see me?"
"Ah-ha!" said Mrs. Boffkins sneeringly. Her eyes were opened wide, her head was lifted high, a malignant smile distorted her plump face. "Ah-ha! Yes, I'd like to talk to you, Miss White—in the parlor, privately, if you please. How very nice you look, Miss White!"
"Never mind my clothes!" said Minnie briefly. She wore a tailored suit of smartest style, on her smooth blonde head was a chic hat—more chic even than Mrs. B.'s own. Her hands were encased in new white kid gloves. Expensive shoes looked forth smartly from beneath her short skirt. "I'll see you for a moment, but that's all. I'm in a hurry."
"In a hurry! Really!" echoed Mrs. Boffkins trembling with rage. She entered the parlor door which Mrs. Smith had held open. Inside, she sat down once more on the creaky sofa. With nervous hands she fumbled for her lorgnette.
"Oh, put that thing down, do!" said Minnie. "You don't need it any more than I do. What was it you wanted, anyhow?"
"I came to see you about my husband—you insolent, common girl !" sputtered Mrs. Boffkins. "I came to tell you that I know—I know—"
"Know what?" said Minnie. She stood by the empty stove, a coolly amused expression on her face. "Know what?"
Mrs. Boffkins changed her tactics.
"Where did you get those clothes that you are wearing?" she accused loudly and hoarsely. "You—who make only seven dollars a week! Why, that suit you are wearing must have cost eighty-five dollars. Where did you get that pin? Those are diamonds—real diamonds! Yes—diamonds that I should be wearing! You got them from my husband, that's where, you hussy. You low . . ."
"Oh, be quiet!" Minnie curled her lips wearily. "I told you before that my clothes are none of your business. Is this all you've got to say?"
"Not all, by the time I'm through with you, my good girl!" retorted Mrs. Boffkins. "You thought that you could fool me, didn't you? And the woman that runs this place, thought that she could fool me, too! I noticed that she wasn't going to let me in to-day."
"Now, see here, stop!" Minnie's eyes had suddenly grown steely. She advanced upon, Mrs. Boffkins and shook a slim, gloved finger in her face. "As far as your husband is concerned, I'm glad you came here to-day because I want to talk to you about him. I want to tell you to keep him home or there'll be trouble! I want to tell you that if he comes bothering me there's going to be real trouble—"
Mrs. Boffkins choked incoherently and attempted to rise. But she sank back upon the sofa a heap of indignant and quivering flesh.
"Yes—you'd better make him let me alone!" went on Minnie wearily. "Now that I'm leaving the store—"
"Leaving the store? Mrs. Boffkins became purple; her mind was confused, she could understand nothing. "Where —where are you going?"
"Never mind where I'm going! You ask questions that are none of your business." Minnie took a step toward the door. "Anyhow, I'm going away this afternoon. Is this all you wanted?"
Her hand was on the door, she looked at Mrs. Boffkins nonchalantly.
"You—you'll suffer for this!" Mrs. Boffkins rose heavily. She swept toward the door, past the complacent Minnie. "These clothes! . . . On that salary! . . . Outrageous!"
Minnie watched her go: the door closed after her with a bang. A moment later there was the sound of the motor starting in the street.
"Gee! A close shave!" Minnie laughed with relief. Her charm all at once became very apparent—a softness, a sweetness, that came with the flash of even white teeth and crinkly, lighted eyes. "Bert! O. K. boy! She's gone!"
The kitchen door opened; out came Egbert Boffkins, looking like a man, instead of a boy. As a matter of fact he had been twenty-one just three days before. But it was not that that had changed him. He caught Minnie in his arms, right before the amused Mrs. Smith, and kissed her, rumpling her veil.
"You're a brick!" he said, fondly. Minnie gave him a short, embarrassed look—a brusque attempt to cover her immense tenderness.
"Go on! You're upsetting my hat!"
"Bother the hat! We'll get dozens more, if you want 'ern! Say—" He let Minnie go, and looked at Mrs. Smith. "Why don't you come along? We could send you back on the train so you'd be home by supper time. Then you could be witness—come on! Get dressed!"
Mrs. Smith hesitated. She colored brightly. Then, suddenly determined, she flew up the stairs, her apron flapping.
"All right . . . ready in ten minutes!"
Alone in the hall, Egbert kissed his Minnie again.
"My wife—in just one hour!" he whispered. It seemed to him something that could hardly be said aloud.
But Minnie was a little reluctant. She looked past him through the curtained door.
"Darn good thing you did leave the car round the corner 'stead of in front of the house," she observed. "There would have been a fine row if she'd ever seen it! She'd have taken you home with her."
"Nobody in the world could take me away from you, my dear," said Egbert quietly. He threw back his shoulders, and picking up Minnie's gloved hand, squeezed it. "Why—we two—"
Minnie looked at him gratefully. A tear ran down her cheek.
"You dear!" she said softly. "Oh, Bert, I—I do love you!"
Breezy Stories, March, 1918.
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