SHILLABEER’S WORLD’S WISDOM EMPORIUM
When Ione and Jane Allen had bidden farewell to the silent but appreciative Peter at the corner of Ely Street, Battersea, they turned sharply to the left. Then skirting a terrace of small houses, each in exact facsimile of the other, they found themselves in Audley Street, at the upper end of which was the house wherein Ione was to lodge. Over the door upon the glass transom were the figures 29. Underneath glittered a brass plate largely engraved with the name Adair. It was a little house rusty-red as to its bricks, with a mere pocket-handkerchief of garden frontage under the window. In the centre of the pocket-handkerchief a few blades of grass were struggling disconsolately upwards, trying to touch each other occasionally for company. Then came a border of "gardener's garter," "lad's love," and "bachelor's button"; while "London pride" smothered all the borders with its dainty florescence, which in that dreary place showed like sea-foam, dusty with the smoke of its own titular city.
"Eh, Jane, but I'm pleased to see ye," cried Mrs. Adair, their landlady, in a broad Doric never reared amid English brick, but which, even after years of exile, still tasted of "doon-the-watter" and those Clydebank towns, in front of which the screws of the latest productions of Fairfield and Dumbarton turn up the spume and driftage of Glasgow on their way to the measured mile. "Come awa', lassie, I was feared something uncanny had happened to ye. I’ll pour oot your tea this verra minute. We hae gotten a haddock the nicht, and it's fine and tasty."
"Mrs. Adair, this is my friend Miss March," said Jane Allen, performing the introduction ceremoniously enough. Ione went forward to shake hands with an instinctive flush of pleasure. For her heart was drawn at once to this sonsy, freckle-faced, raw-boned Scotch woman, with her capable hands yet moist from the washtub, and her hair escaping in thick grey locks from underneath the white westland "mutch." (This is a linen cap with strings, in which the head is encased in that fashion which is no modern mode de Paris, but which, nevertheless, the Scots owe to the Auld Alliance, and which may be seen to this day in the market-places of Loches and Amboise.)
"Ye are welcome, missie," said Mrs. Adair; "I wish it had been the bonny Clydeside that ye were comin' to bide in awa' doon yonder by Inverkip—wi' the laverocks singin' blithely in the lift, the linties jinking in the whin bushes, and the bonny steamboats on the Clyde gangin' and comin' like the angels ascendin' an' descendin' Jacob's ladder."
In a short time, when Ione had transported her small belongings from the hotel in the Strand, she was made free of the house in Audley Street, and was to every indweller in it as a sister or a daughter. She learned to respect silent, self-contained, taciturn, rigidly upright Hugh Adair, a six-foot Tipperary Prodestan', who with his quiet ways was the very opposite of the shillaleh-twirling, tread-on-the-tail-of-me-coat Irishman of the stage. She learned also to love his hot-tempered and leal-natured wife, whose generosity was such that if her husband had not looked after the finances, she would have beggared herself to feed every lazy lout of a "gaun body," and clothe every barefoot bairn with a Scot's accent that happened to stray into Audley Street.
It is a curious study, this of popular racial head-marks. Doubtless the comic "blandantherin'" Irishman exists, and as certainly so does the close-fisted, bang-went-saxpence Scot. Yet the genius of both races is quite other. The Irish, a high-strung, close-lipped, punctilious race, who as a nation are breeders of great judges, doctors, commanders-in-chiefs, are doomed to misrepresentation on the British stage by jig-dancers and windy orators. On the other hand, the Scot in whom is the true genius of Knox and Burns and Scott, is apt to be generous, vain without conceit, lavish without extravagance, eager to please, prone alike to the greater sins and the severer virtues, with a hatred of meanness which is as natural as his respect for revealed religion. Tom Adair, son of Hugh of that ilk, and already a foreman of the yard in the great engineering works of Jeffray & Company, possessed the characteristics of both father and mother. Like his father he was slow to speak; like his mother he was quick to act, and that always to a generous intent. Men who dwell amid the ceaseless clatter and unresting rush of machinery seldom talk much, and even at home Tom was a silent, bookish lad.
But he was ever anxious to do anything for his mother. It was a sight worth seeing to watch the good son fitting stationary wash-tubs, extending water pipes, or putting up new and improved drying lines across the tiny bricked yard at the back of the house — all with the same fine conscientiousness and attention to detail which at twenty-three had made him foreman of his department, while his father remained still the plain ship's carpenter he had been bred in the city of Belfast forty years before.
Ione counted up her money on the night she went to lodge in 29 Audley Street. She had exactly fifty pounds and three shillings, so that she felt secure for some time at her present rate of expenditure. Nevertheless, it was well that she knew how to economise. For discouragement and disappointment waited upon her endeavours, as indeed they mostly do on all new projects, that these may be tried in the furnace as gold is tried. Day by day Ione went out with a string of new addresses, mostly supplied by Jane Allen, who obtained them from the kind and willing Gopher & Arlington girls.
Perhaps it was the season when authors do not send in their copy, when publishers and literary agents do not require "carbons" to secure foreign rights, when merchants write their own letters — and as few of those as possible. At any rate the market was overstocked. Ione must wait.
At last, one day she heard accidentally of Shillabeer's Information Bureau and World's Wisdom Emporium, and in one glowing moment a new hope took possession of her. The name was new, and the thing also. None of the Gopher & Arlington girls knew anything practical of the concern, but all had heard that there were many openings for talent there. It had only been running a few months, and everybody knew the romantic story of its founder. Mr. Shillabeer had been a commercial traveller in hog-bristles and brushes till he struck this great idea. Then, in four strides he had become famous, and, it was presumed, rich also.
Really he had come into a legacy of considerable value, left him by a distant relative, and with this he set about realising his idea and establishing a great knowledge industry. There was nothing in the world which was to be hid from Nathaniel Shillabeer and his specialists. He had often observed with contemptuous wonder the extreme cheapness of the knowledge market. There was, he argued, no branch of science so abstruse and recondite that it had not been mastered by some waif of ill success, who would be ready to distribute, for a pound a week, the knowledge which had been of such little value to himself.
Again, it was the era of Universal Stores. Even the brush-and-hog-bristle line had been injured by the competition of great establishments which bought at special rates by the thousand gross, and before whose conquering monopoly his smaller customers went down like ninepins. Well, why should not he, Nathaniel Shillabeer, pool the unrelated and useless brains of a nation? He began instinctively to make out his programme. Though not a literary man himself, the phrases of the perfect prospectus flowed from his fingers. The Wisdom Emporium would compose, copy, translate, publish, or introduce to publishers. It would prepare speeches, report them, extend them, typewrite them, correct proof-sheets, illustrate, criticise, or have criticisms inserted in the literary gossip journals — applausive for the books of moneyed clients, or destructive and envenomed for those who were of the enemy. Speeches new and original on any subject for pulpit or platform, banquet or deliberative assembly, could be supplied at current rates. Shillabeer's would also answer all questions, speak all languages, know all knowledge, and find out all secrets, from those of the stars to those of the private detective agency.
Ione found Shillabeer's readily — it was easy enough to do that. Across the front of a great building near Ludgate Circus, the name and style of "Shillabeer's Universal World's Wisdom Emporium" were written up in letters which seemed fitted to be read in Mars. A gilt angel stood on the domed roof blowing a trumpet to the praise and glory of Shillabeer, the Great and Only. While at night an infernal machine seared the eyes of all the neighbourhood by flashing "the Name" on the fronts of the houses opposite, or occupied itself in inditing "Shillabeer" in letters of alternate green and red, beginning laboriously with the letter S and ending by a flourish, in supposed imitation of the signature of the great Napoleon of Ideas.
"Shillabeer's" was patent and palpable, but it was not so easy to find Shillabeer.
First of all Ione stated her business to a young gentleman, of the top of whose head she had a limited but interesting view through a pigeon-hole. But he was busy, and did not even glance at her.
"Apply Department F," he said sharply; whereupon Ione thanked him and went out obediently to seek Department F.
She attracted little attention anywhere now. For the defaulting tailor-made tweed had been exchanged for a black serge of cheap quality, originally constructed for the universal woman without any relation to the particular individual who might be compelled to wear it. But with deft flitting needle Ione had remade it, Jane sitting by in breathless admiration of her friend's skill.
Externally, Department F seemed like all the other departments of Shillabeer's. It had apparently to do with advertisements, and a stream of customers at many windows bargained for so many "appearances" in different papers, or glanced at sample insertions in variously priced journals and magazines. At the pigeonhole marked "General Inquiries," Ione stated her case. A morose, dark-skinned man glanced casually at her, demanded her age and qualifications, and from whom she had brought testimonials. To all of which Ione replied with as much of the professional manner as she had been able to pick up from Jane Allen.
The dark-skinned man grunted, and rising with a tired sigh, he reached down a large book. He consulted an index, turned to a page, and ran his finger down.
"We have," he said, in an impressive tone of voice, "just twelve hundred applications for the same kind of work. You will make 1,201. What is your name? 'Marks,' did you say? — Oh, March. You’ll need to learn to speak more clearly, young lydy. In London we've got no time for making out foreign langwages!"
For the first time Ione's heart sank. She went away from the pigeon-hole and the dark man with an ache in her heart. Evidently there was no place for her here. She stood a moment sadly by a window from which she could see the eternal elbowing push of business on the sidewalk beneath her, and hear the rumble and growl of the heavier waggon traffic along the street centre.
"There is no working place in all this London for me," she said. "I must go back. I am not fit for anything but loafing through this world of busy men and women."
Tears rose in Ione's eyes, and she felt instinctively in her pocket for her handkerchief. As she did so, a door opened at the end of a row of pigeon-holes, through which could be seen a glimpse of a luxurious office beyond. The man who stood looking at Ione was of the dark full-blooded variety, with high cheek-bones, smallish eyes, stiff erect eyebrows, and thick lips habitually pursed — an individuality coarse enough in some respects, but not devoid of a certain large animal handsomeness.
He gazed at Ione with a quick, penetrating look. When Mr. Shillabeer (for it was he) first saw the black dress and the evidence of tears, he had intended simply to request the young woman to be good enough to allow her emotion to overcome her elsewhere than in the Department F of the World's Wisdom Emporium.
Business was business there, if anywhere. Emotions and their sequelӕ were dealt with in the Private Inquiry Office, Department Z.
But a second look at Ione's profile, and yet another into her darkly glorious eyes, now soft as velvet and deep as the sea, caused the great man abruptly to change his mind.
Putting the handkerchief in her pocket, Ione had moved to the outer door, but she had not yet "kindly pulled" (as the painted notice on the ground-glass instructed her to do), when a deferential young man laid a hand on her cuff, and asked her to be good enough to step this way. In the dark of the passage the youth seemed inclined to keep his hand where he had placed it, but with a gesture more businesslike than haughty, Ione disengaged her arm. Whereat the clerk shrugged his shoulders with a knowing air, as if he desired to inform her that such niceties were not good business for applicants at the World's Emporium to indulge themselves in.
"Will you come this way," he said aloud, somewhat constrainedly; "the head will see you!"
It was a luxurious room into which Ione was ushered. The door shut behind the clerk noiselessly. A fire was burning brightly in the grate, and a warm perfume of leather and rich carpets pervaded the place. A tall, small-eyed, heavy-jowled man stood alone by the mantelpiece. At Ione's approach he threw away the cigarette, which indeed he had lighted only the moment before for that very purpose.
"Will you sit down," he said, placing a chair for Ione where the light of the window would fall full on her face and illuminate her eyes. He himself lounged easily against the cushioned arm of a great chair with a swivelled book-rest, and attentively studied his visitor.
"You wish for employment," he went on after a moment's silence, "so at least I am informed by my clerk. It is true that we have many applications — far more than we can possibly find places for — wide as our connection is. That is, of course, in our ordinary employment bureau, which is open to every one. But if you will tell me your name, your circumstances, and your qualifications, I will myself see what can be done."
Ione looked at the man gratefully. It was the first encouraging word she had heard in a long round of disappointments. And when the eyes of Ione March looked all their thankfulness and gratitude upon any son of Adam, something was bound to happen. On this occasion they shone forth with such a soft and sudden splendour — such dreamy depths of heavens opened through the dewy mist of their recent tears — that the man before her stood up with a sharp quiver of the eyelids. Something kindled on his face and beaconed in his eyes like candles being lighted in a darkened room. He breathed faster, and passed his lips one over the other. This was clearly not a man of the stamp of Mr. Kearney Judd.
Ione continued to smile as she detailed her experiences. Mr. Shillabeer did not ask her the length of her stay at the Gopher & Arlington office. To her secret relief he scarcely glanced at the certificate itself.
“Why did you leave?" was his only question, and he shot it at her from his pursed lips as out of a pop-gun.
"The terms of the engagement did not suit me," said Ione as quickly.
"I hope they will suit you better if I make you my private secretary," said Mr. Nathaniel Shillabeer, with discomposing promptness. “ Can you begin work immediately?”
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.