The Eagles Nest


14. Keeping Shop

"Please may I just look in your cellar for a minute?" began Madge very politely, as she entered the shop. "I am very sorry to trouble you, but I won't be long."

"What did you say you wanted, miss?" inquired the old woman, thinking that she had not heard correctly what Madge asked for. "You must excuse me, miss," she went on, "for ever since I had the influenza last winter my hearing has not been what it was before. It's very awkward in the shop, as you may think. Many days I get one of my grand-children, a little girl about your age, to come and help me, but this week she has gone off to visit an aunt in London. Of course that was a great treat for her, so I couldn't think of interfering with it, and I am trying to do the best I can alone."

Another time Madge would have been much interested in hearing all about the little girl who helped her grandmother to keep shop; but now she was in a great hurry to get her money back before Miss Thompson came to look for her, so directly the old woman stopped speaking she began a more detailed explanation of what she wanted, in a particularly clear voice.

"If it was only my own money I wouldn't interrupt you to look for it," she said, "although it is five shillings and sevenpence. But it belongs to the others as well, and, of course, they are expecting me to choose all sorts of nice things in the shops. They will be so disappointed if I don't get it back in time to buy something before we have to start home. It seemed so safe in a brown money-bag, you know; at least it was really Betty's shoe-bag, only she took them out and put them in her drawer. I don't think Nurse knew she had done it. But what I wanted to tell you was, that I believe I can find it in a minute if you will only let me run down to your cellar."

It is to be feared that the old woman understood even less than she heard of this long speech. One sentence, however, reached her ears, and to this she replied.

"I haven't any cellar, miss," she said.

"But--but--" Madge did not dare contradict her flatly. Yet there was the grating in the pavement outside. "Please come to the door a minute," she cried, "and I will show you what I mean, Mrs-- Oh, I am so sorry! I don't know your name!"

"My name is Mrs. Winter, and I've kept this shop ever since I became a widow thirty years ago," said the old woman. Then pitying Madge's blushes she continued: "It doesn't matter about not knowing my name, miss. Don't give it another thought. Mrs. Winter is my name, as I said, and it is certainly written above the door, but perhaps you didn't notice it."

"No, I didn't look there! That was very stupid indeed of me!" exclaimed Madge, who had been rather afraid that the old woman might be vexed at her name not being better known. "But I shall remember that you are Mrs. Winter always now," she added. "And now please let me show you where the brown bag dropped."

"Ah, down there was it?" said Mrs. Winter, coming to the door. "You will have a troublesome job to get in there, I am afraid. That cellar belongs to the large house next door that's empty. The whole place is shut up, and the man who keeps the key lives at the other side of the town."

"What shall I do? What shall I do?" repeated poor Madge, her spirits quite giving way at this discouraging news. Up to that time she had fancied that if she could once explain the state of the case to Mrs. Winter all would be well. And now it turned out that after all Mrs. Winter had no more power to get back the bag than Madge herself. Of course at twelve years old one can't cry before strangers, but if Madge had only been the same age as the twins, it is very certain that she would have relieved herself by bursting into tears. Even as it was she looked so miserable as to excite Mrs. Winter's compassion.

"There! Don't you fret about your money, my dear," she said, patting Madge kindly on the shoulder. "It will be all safe down that grating, never fear! There are too many locked doors to the house for anybody to run away with it, and the rats and spiders won't do it any harm. And when the man who keeps the key comes to open the windows and air the rooms a bit I'll try and catch him. He is generally here about once or twice a week, and I'll see that you get back your money safe enough."

"It's very kind of you," said Madge dolefully; "but I am afraid it will not be of much use unless I can get back the money this afternoon. You see, we live in the country, and we hardly ever come to Churchbury; only now and then for a great treat. And Betty and John are expecting their toys this evening, or books, or chocolates. I was to choose whatever I thought they would like best, and now I can't get anything."

"Dear! dear!" exclaimed kind Mrs. Winter, in a tone of deep concern. And then she proceeded to ask a great many questions about what had happened.

As Madge finished her sad story the old woman broke out into lamentations.

"If only I had someone to keep the shop for half an hour I would go after the man myself and try to get the key, that I would," she said. "But little Ann is away, and--"

"Who is little Ann?" interrupted Madge.

"Why, my grandchild to be sure!" rejoined Mrs. Winter. "And not so little either, only that's a manner of speaking I got into when she was a baby, and now I keep on forgetting that she has turned thirteen and able to help me in the shop as well as any grown-up woman."

"I shall be thirteen very soon myself," said Madge eagerly. "Don't you think I could stay in the shop just as Ann does, while you go to find the man with the key? Oh, please let me try! I'm sure I could manage it if you are quick."

Mrs. Winter hesitated. It is true that Madge was just as tall as her own grand-daughter, but then Ann knew the ways of the shop; and it was a very different thing leaving her in charge to confiding all one's property to the care of a perfect stranger. Mrs. Winter, however, did not feel any distrust of Madge, and quite believed the story about the lost bag of money. She could see that it was not the invention of an impostor, who wished to get an opportunity for pilfering little things out of the shop. In fact, the more Mrs. Winter thought about the case the more inclined she felt to help in the recovery of the brown bag. She was one if those kindly people who naturally interest themselves in their neighbours' affairs, and she felt strongly tempted to take a part in the little adventure.

"After all it's no great work to stand behind the counter and see that the things are safe," said Mrs. Winter reflectively.

"Oh, yes, I'm sure I could do that!" replied Madge. "But then if anybody came to buy. They do sometimes, I suppose?"

"Of course they do, or what would be the sense of calling it a shop," said Mrs. Winter rather sharply. "You mustn't think because you caught me just sitting down to knit for a few minutes this afternoon that business is in any way slack. That's just my quiet time for an hour or so then. But you wait till about tea-time, and there isn't standing room for anyone in the shop many an evening. I know I could do with another pair of hands easily! What with one wanting writing-paper, and another pencils, and another a bottle of ink, it may be! And the children running in with their pennies to ask for some of the little things you may have noticed in the window; I always keep a lot of knick-knacks for them."

All this sounded very alarming. Even Madge began to doubt her own capacity for standing behind the counter and awaiting such an overpowering rush of business. However, she presently remembered that Mrs. Winter had referred to the afternoon as being usually a very quiet time, and certainly nothing could have looked more peaceful than the old woman sitting quietly nodding over her knitting, and occasionally flicking a speck of dust off the goods nearest her. Besides, on careful consideration, the shop was so small that three or four customers would have great difficulty in getting inside it at once, so perhaps the crowd of which Mrs. Winter spoke was not really of such an alarming size. At all events she wanted to get the brown bag back very much, and it was worth risking something for its recovery.

After a great deal of persuasion Mrs. Winter consented to put on her bonnet and go in search of the man with the key. Up to the last moment she poured out an unceasing flow of instructions to Madge how to behave under every possible circumstance. "And if anybody should come while I am away, which it's to be hoped they won't, you must just make a bit of conversation about the weather or something till I come back," she concluded. "That's what Ann does when I've stepped out for a moment, and she doesn't know the price of a thing somebody inquires for. Why, the child will chat away as cleverly as possible about the new electric lights in the town, or the spring flower-show, or what not, and nobody could ever guess that she is only filling up the time till I come back! And that's what you must try and do." With these words Mrs. Winter left the shop.

It was a funny position for Madge, left all alone in charge of a shop. If anybody had told her that it was going to happen she would have been delighted at such an amusing prospect, and would certainly not have been troubled by any modest doubts as to her power of selling like a regular shop-woman. But now that the situation had actually come to pass she felt unusually nervous, and very much hoped that her talents would not be tested by any customer coming while she was alone. For the first quarter of an hour she stood anxiously staring through the glass at the passers-by, expecting each person to stop and come in at the door. Nobody came, however, and in spite of Mrs. Winter's repeated assurances of the popularity of her little shop, it seemed strangely neglected that afternoon by the inhabitants of Churchbury.

Madge gradually became calmer as she found that nothing was going to happen, and with the comfortable reflection that Mrs. Winter must be back before long she began to amuse herself by examining the contents of the shop.