15. A Customer
It was really very interesting to be inside the counter instead of outside, and in a position to examine everything carefully without any interference. On the rare occasions when Madge, Betty, and John went shopping, it always seemed to them as if no sooner had they caught a glimpse of some especially fascinating book, picture, or toy, than they were instantly hauled away to one of those dull linen-draper's establishments in which grown-up people so mysteriously delight to linger. As for examining anything closely, that was quite out of the question when they went shopping with Miss Thompson. Ever since the time when Betty had knocked two china ornaments off a shelf and broken them to pieces while stretching out her hand to pick up a pepper-pot in the shape of an owl, there had been a strict rule that the children should touch nothing in shops. It was a dreadfully dull rule, because, of course, nobody can look at things comfortably from a yard off and without handling them at all. The prettiest doll loses most of its interest if one cannot count how many petticoats there are under its dress, and examine how much of its neck is made of wax, and where the stuffing begins. And what can be duller than a mechanical mouse, unless one can wind it up to run on the floor?
Madge decided at once that under such very peculiar circumstances as the present she need not keep to Miss Thompson's rule. After all it would be simply ridiculous to be standing inside the counter and left in charge of the shop without even daring to look at the things she was supposed to be selling. So, to provide herself as it were with a good excuse, she took up a duster that she found lying on a chair, and began carefully to rub over all the interesting things. The piles of envelopes and writing-paper Madge did not consider required much dusting, but pen-wipers in the shape of pigs, and work-boxes covered with shells arranged in patterns, clearly called for a great deal of attention.
Although Mrs. Winter was very particular about calling her shop a stationer's, she really seemed to sell a little of everything. Madge could see very well that it was just the kind of place where she would be able to choose the sort of interesting things that Betty and John expected. When she got her money back she would set seriously to work to spend it at Mrs. Winter's before she met with any further misadventures.
"It isn't many people who have first kept a shop and then bought things out of it all in one afternoon, I should think," she said aloud, as she vigorously dusted a mug adorned with coloured portraits of the royal family.
At that moment there was a great push, and the door flew open.
"How quick you have been!" began Madge; then she stopped suddenly and almost dropped the mug. It was not Mrs. Winter who came in, but a girl a few years older than herself, evidently a customer.
"I want a fashion-paper," said the new-comer in a harsh voice. "One of those with big coloured pictures of ladies in party-dresses and ball-gowns. Something smart, you know. It's for myself--Miss Amelia Block of Ivy Villa."
Madge felt that she was expected to know the name, and that Miss Amelia Block was, in her own estimation at least, a very important person. Perhaps she was in the habit of buying fashion-papers at this shop. She probably had copied her hat, which was very large and profusely trimmed with pink ribbon, out of one of the coloured pictures of which she seemed so fond. It was a pity, Madge thought, that her face, instead of being pretty and smiling, as the ladies are always represented in fashion-papers, was ugly and cross-looking. And a pair of very dirty gray kid gloves, with most of their buttons off, did not improve her appearance by any means.
"I do hope she intends to buy some new gloves before she has any more smart dresses or hats made," Madge could not help thinking.
In the meantime Miss Block was walking slowly round, or to speak more correctly, turning on her heels, in the middle of the tiny shop. "You don't seem to have much choice of fashion-papers here," she said rudely.
Madge did not reply, for the very excellent reason that she had not an idea what fashion-papers Mrs. Winter kept.
"Haven't you anything more stylish than this?" inquired Miss Block, picking up an illustrated magazine off the counter, and pointing contemptuously to the picture of two ladies in their best dresses on the cover. "I'm going to several parties and bazaars," she explained, "and, of course, I don't want to look a regular dowdy."
"No, I see you don't," said Madge, staring at the enormous pink hat, and then without intending it her eyes suddenly fell to the dirty gray kid gloves.
Miss Block evidently thought that the little girl was intentionally trying to make her feel uncomfortable. She became very red, and hurriedly hid her hands in the folds of her skirt.
"If you will kindly give me what I asked for at once, instead of standing there giggling at your betters, I'll be very much obliged to you," she said, speaking even more disagreeably than before.
Madge was quite taken aback by this address. She never had the least intention of behaving rudely, although it was true that in the bottom of her heart she did not at all admire Miss Block's appearance. Still, she had not meant to show her feelings so plainly. While she stood speechless, wondering how she could best beg her customer's pardon, Miss Block burst out into a storm of abuse that would better have befitted a neglected street child than such a very smartly dressed young woman.
"You just wait a bit till I see your grandmother!" she cried. "I'll soon give her a bit of my mind for leaving such a vulgar chit of a child in charge of her shop! It's my own fault I suppose for coming to such a low place instead of going to the largest shops in the town, which I might as well do. And in future I shall certainly go where I shall be treated like a young lady! Mrs. Winter needn't look for my patronage any more, I can tell you. She may think I am going to submit quietly to being insulted by her pert little granddaughter, but she will soon find out--"
"Please, I am not Mrs. Winter's grandchild, so you need not say that!" interrupted Madge, suddenly recovering the use of her voice. Her anger at this undeserved abuse almost got the better of her shyness. "I've got nothing to do with Mrs. Winter," she continued. "But it's a nice shop and I won't hear it abused. I dare say there are heaps of fashion-papers in it, only I don't know where to find them--"
"If you aren't Mrs. Winter's grand-daughter, who are you then, I should very much like to know?" said Miss Block, looking at Madge curiously across the counter.
"That's no business of yours," replied Madge, with more truth than politeness. In point of fact she did not wish this very disagreeable young person to find out her name. It seemed as if the adventure might end rather sillily, and Madge was not at all anxious for her part in it to be widely known.
Miss Block did not appear daunted by the abrupt answer she had received. On the contrary, she gave a curious smile when Madge declined to tell her name, and nodded her head, repeating softly to herself, "I thought so. Just as I thought."
"What did you think?" said Madge at last, feeling intolerably irritated at her customer's mysterious words and manners.
"Well, it wouldn't require a very clever person to guess what you are!" replied Miss Block triumphantly. She spoke as if she had just made some great discovery that gave her infinite pleasure.
"You don't really know who I am, do you?" said Madge with considerable anxiety.
"Well, I am generally considered as sharp as my neighbours, I believe!" retorted Miss Block. "And I can make a pretty good guess! When I find somebody in a shop who doesn't know where any of the things are kept, although I see her pulling them all about as I come in; and when she gets very frightened, and won't tell her name or how she got there, I call that person a thief!"
"A thief! You think I am a thief!" cried Madge, almost more astonished than offended by such an extraordinary accusation. "Why, Mrs. Winter herself told me to stay in the shop while she went off to find the man who--"
"Oh yes! A very fine story. I have heard of that kind of excuse before!" interrupted Miss Block mockingly. "It's my belief you just slipped in when poor old Mrs. Winter was out of the way for a minute, and if I hadn't luckily caught you in the very act you would have been off with your pockets crammed--"
"How can you say such things!" cried Madge. "Why, I have money to pay for everything I want, only it's dropped down the grating into the cellar of the next house, as I was just going to tell you. And while Mrs. Winter went to get the key I was making up my mind what I would buy presently. And as I have five shillings and sevenpence to spend (it's not all mine exactly, but nearly the same thing), you certainly need not say that I wasn't going to pay!"
"Now that's a very interesting story! So interesting that I'll give you the chance of repeating it to a policeman, and we'll see what he says to it," remarked Miss Block, at the same time moving towards the street door as if to go out.
Madge could hardly believe her ears. A policeman being called to examine her just as if she were really a thief! It seemed impossible, but Miss Block, with a most unpleasant smile, was actually turning the door-handle, when she was suddenly seized round the waist by two strong arms.
"You sha'n't do it!" cried Madge hysterically. "You sha'n't do it, I tell you!"
She was a tall, strong girl for her age, and having sprung on Miss Block from behind and taken her quite by surprise, she had no difficulty in dragging her across the little shop.
Miss Block uttered a series of frightened shrieks and tried to wrench herself free, but though taller she was not nearly so active as Madge. While struggling together the two girls pushed heavily against a door at the back of the shop that led into Mrs. Winter's little sitting-room. It burst open, and they both fell headlong on to a black horse-hair sofa which occupied a prominent position in the room. Madge recovered first from the shock of the fall, and darting back into the shop slammed the door behind her, turning the key in the lock.