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Rain In The Doorway
TO be unceremoniously snatched through a doorway is almost invariably a disconcerting experience for anyone—especially when the person snatched has every reason to believe that the door was securely locked, with no living creature behind it of more sinister aspect than a cat, a large store cat whose business lay chiefly with mice. Now, the surprising feature of Mr. Hector Owen's experience was that he felt no sensation of disconcertion at all, or hardly any. His first reaction to the sudden change was one of profound relief. There was an immediate dropping away of anxiety and responsibility, a sort of spiritual sloughing off of all moral obligations. In their place flooded in a glorious feeling of newness, freedom, and rebirth, that buoyancy which comes when one awakens fresh on a fine morning with the knowledge that one has something especially agreeable to do that day. In his quiet, self-contained way Mr. Owen was convinced that he not only felt younger than he had for many a year but also that he was actually younger and looked it.
Quite naturally he was surprised by the size and magnificence of the establishment in which he found himself. He thought at first, from its noble proportions, that he was standing in some celestial railway terminal. The vast space was diffused with a soft yellow radiance shot with currents of sheer elation. There was a fascinating fragrance in the air about him, tantalising in its diversity. The aroma of coffee, the scent of soaps, spice and perfumes, the vague, indefinable breath given off by new materials, rugs, and furniture, and the pleasing tang of leather goods drifted past his keenly alert nose like so many little unseen sails on a calm, invisible sea.
Only gradually was it that he became aware of the fact that he was standing in what could be nothing in the world other than a spacious and admirably planned department store, but such a department store as he had never been dragged through at the heels of a ruthlessly spendthrift Lulu in some dimly remembered reincarnation.
From a large central plaza broad aisles between handsome rows of counters radiated in all directions like spokes in a giant wheel. And Mr. Owen's roving and rejuvenated eyes noted with a thrill of gratification a number of remarkably good-looking salesgirls standing in happy profusion behind the counters. From any one of these young women Mr. Owen would have eagerly purchased practically anything he could have induced her to sell.
The roof of the store was lofty. Like the sky itself, it curved out from a dim central dome and seemed to run away into mysteriously shadowed infinity. Balcony upon balcony, with gay and graceful balustrades, circled round the huge hall and mounted dizzily skyward, each balcony presenting itself to Mr. Owen's fascinated eyes as a fresh plane of discovery in an altogether new universe. Through wide doorways opening on gracious vistas Mr. Owen caught glimpses of a broad boulevard spiritedly splashed with sidewalk cafés at which men and women were eating and drinking and reading the newspapers and making improper proposals to each other, as men and women will upon the slightest provocation and even without. And who would not make improper proposals in such a delightful atmosphere, Mr. Owen asked himself? He himself would like to make some perfectly terrific ones right there and then to any number of salesgirls. And surely improper proposals were the only proper ones to make when surrounded by so much beauty. Chivalry was taking a new lease on life in Mr. Owen's breast. He would bide his time, however, before risking any of the proposals he had at that moment in mind.
From the street scene his eyes were attracted by an unprecedented burst of activity taking place at one of the counters near which he was standing. As he watched this activity he decided to defer his proposals indefinitely. It was activity of a decidedly unpropitious nature. Mr. Owen was vaguely aware of the presence of a gentleman standing beside him. This gentleman seemed also to be absorbed in what was going on. His being exuded an atmosphere of pleasant anticipation. Mr. Owen could hardly understand the reason for this because what he saw going on struck him as being anything but pleasant. In fact, it was the very last thing he would have expected to witness in such an obviously fashionable and well-regulated establishment.
What Mr. Owen saw was bad enough, but the sounds that accompanied it were even worse. A young and beautiful salesgirl had reached across the counter separating her from her customer and had angrily seized the customer's nose in a grip of eternal animosity. The customer, one of those large, officious, disagreeably arrogant ladies who infest department stores, was emitting a volley of objectionable and highly unladylike noises. But above her voice came the clear, crisp, furious words of the salesgirl "You mean-spirited, over-stuffed, blue-faced old baboon, you wicked-hearted old cow walrus," said the salesgirl, "take that and that and that."
The that and that and that designated three separate and distinct tweaks administered to the nose of the customer. Mr. Owen was faintly surprised and not a little relieved that the appendage did not come away in the salesgirl’s fingers. He turned to his companion, and was even more surprised to find him murmuring delightedly to himself.
"Good!" the gentleman was ejaculating under his breath. "Oh, very, very good, in fact, capital. Titanic tweaks. By gad, sir, they fairly sizzle."
He smiled upon Mr. Owen, who stood regarding him with dazed eyes.
"Are we both seeing the same thing?" Mr. Owen asked somewhat timidly. "A lady being assaulted by one of your salesgirls?"
"The same thing, my dear sir," replied the man proudly in a voice of polished courtesy. "The same thing exactly. Isn't she doing splendidly?"
"Splendidly!" gasped Mr. Owen. "She's doing it brutally. Nearly murdering the woman."
The gentleman regarded the tweaking scene with an air of professional detachment.
"But not quite," he commented. "Do you see the woman whose nose is being tweaked? Well, she's a most pestiferous old bitch." Mr. Owen drew a sharp breath. "Yes, yes," the gentleman went on almost gaily, "most pestiferous old bitch describes her nicely—a regular she-dragon. And a bully. Attend a moment and you will see something amusing. Watch how she gets hers."
To the accompaniment of chuckles and muttered exclamations of encouragement from his strange companion, such as, "Boost the old bird in the bottom," and "I fancy that old fright will never show up here any more," Mr. Owen watched the she-dragon literally get hers. And he was forced to admit to himself that from the looks of the lady she was getting no more than she deserved. From all directions sales attendants were rushing down the aisles, converging en masse on the assaulted woman and showering her with a deluge of violent language. Everyone who could find space on her person to grab laid violent hands on it, whatever it chanced to be, and the lady was hurtled through the store and hurled out upon the street. Upon the completion of this apparently popular task the group of attendants broke up into individual units and returned quietly to their places as if nothing had occurred. The salesgirl who had started the trouble, now all smiles and helpfulness, promptly began to assist another lady, whose gentle manner, Mr. Owen decided, belied an intrepid spirit, to match a length of ribbon.
Turning once more to his companion, Mr. Owen was momentarily upset to find himself being happily beamed upon from that direction. What manner of man was he, Mr. Owen found himself wondering? Externally, the man appeared to be a person of refinement, not to say distinction. He was no taller than Mr. Owen himself, and of the same general physique, although he carried himself far more debonairly than Mr. Owen had ever dreamed of attempting at his most heady moments.
The gentleman's complexion, Mr. Owen noted, was darkly olive and smooth. Two brown eyes of a subtly insinuating cast, but now eloquent with well-being, sparkled and snapped beneath fine, graceful eyebrows. About the man there seemed to hover a faint suggestion of danger, recklessness, and unscrupulous enterprise. Behind the brown eyes glittered, or seemed to glitter, an inner preoccupation with affairs not generally considered nice. The man's hair was smooth, like the rest of him, smooth and black. There was just a touch of scent—not bad—and at the temples a sprinkling of grey. Two rows of white, even teeth formed a background for a pair of firm lips which to Mr. Owen seemed capable of uttering the most hair-raising blasphemies with all the unconscious charm of a child murmuring to itself in its sleep. He was faultlessly attired in a morning coat and striped trousers, There were spats. This last item strengthened Mr. Owen's conviction that he was standing in the presence of a person whom one should meet with reservation and follow with the utmost caution. The gentleman now addressed Mr. Owen in an engaging tone of voice.
"You are, my friend, I see," he said, "somewhat puzzled by the little affair you have just witnessed?"
Catching the rising inflection in the other's voice Mr. Owen assumed his words to be couched in the form of a polite but superfluous inquiry.
"Quite naturally," he replied a little sharply. "I am not accustomed to seeing respectable-looking ladies set upon by a howling mob, and violently flung out of doors. Who wouldn't be surprised?"
"I wouldn't, for one." the gentleman answered equably. "And I could name thousands of others. We're quite used to that sort of thing here."
"Do you mean to say," demanded Mr. Owen, "that you permit your sales people to toss perfectly respectable customers out ad lib.?”
"More at random," the gentleman decided, eyeing Mr. Owen with an amused smile, "although your ad lib. is pretty close to the mark. Furthermore, respectability doesn't count with us here. We find it exceedingly trying." With a shocked feeling Mr. Owen found himself unconsciously agreeing with the speaker. Respectability could be trying. "And anyway," the gentleman was running on, "that old devil wasn't really respectable, not honestly so. She derives her income from some of the most unentertaining resorts—you get what I mean (Mr. Owen was afraid he did)—in town, or rather I should say from some of the least entertaining, for none of them is really unentertaining. Like whiskies, some are merely better than others. I never visit hers myself, but I'll take you to some dandy ones I've recently discovered."
"Aren't we getting a little off the point?" Mr. Owen hastily put in. "We were talking about the lady."
"What?" said the gentleman. "Oh, yes, I forgot. Well, remind me about the other things. We'll take those up later together with several other delightfully vicious resorts you'll find amusing. Now, about that old sea cow—that walrus woman. We simply loathe her. On and off, she's been annoying us for years."
"I doubt if she does any more," commented Mr. Owen, smiling in spite of himself.
"I hope, I hope most sincerely, she does not," the man continued quite seriously. "You see, my dear sir, it is an old trade custom of ours—a tradition, in fact—that whenever customers become unendurably overbearing with any members of our sales force we throw 'em out on their ear regardless of the sex of the ear. It makes no difference with us whether it's a man's ear, a woman's, or a child's. I'm told my clerks call it the 'bum's rush,' but of course I make it a point to frown on the use of such expressions. I find them unnecessarily crude."
"But scarcely any cruder than the actual deed itself," Mr. Owen observed.
"My dear fellow," the other hastened to explain, "that's where you err. That's exactly where you err, if you will forgive my saying so. The action itself was justified. Neither my partners nor I can stand having our store cluttered up with a lot of rattle-brained, vacillating, self-important time wasters and ill-mannered bullies such as, unfortunately, so many persons are who habitually frequent department stores. You must be familiar with the sort I mean," the man went on. "She bustles into the store with seventy-nine cents in her purse and a parcel of goods to exchange and thinks she's God Almighty's social arbiter in the presence of a group of slaves. We chuck 'em out here before they can upset our salesgirls. We don't like upset salesgirls unless upset in the right way and in the right place."
"What's the right way to upset one of these salesgirls?" asked Mr. Owen.
"How charmingly put!" the other exclaimed. "I see you're a bit of a one yourself. Frankly, though, you don't need to upset most of our salesgirls. They seem quite willing to upset themselves with the most alarming alacrity. If anything, they're a little too eager, let us say, for the lack of a better word, to upset."
"I should think," interjected Mr. Owen in an attempt to change the subject, "you'd lose a lot of customers by such drastic methods."
"Oh, we do!" the gentleman exclaimed enthusiastically. "You have no idea. Perhaps that's one of the reasons we're tearing along into bankruptcy. I don't quite know. On the other hand, we believe in giving our customers an even break. We always inform them that they are at liberty to hit any member of our sales force with any object handy whenever the sales person shows the slightest inclination to gratuitous incivility, stupidity, or lack of interest. Whenever we find that a clerk has been knocked cold by several customers in the course of a few days we naturally decide that the clerk is not qualified to deal with the public and so, accordingly, we chuck the clerk out too. We find it much more natural and efficacious to allow our clerks and customers to settle their little difficulties and differences among themselves. Besides, I find it rather amusing. I do so loathe monotony, don't you, Mr.— er——"
"Mr. Owen," the other replied hesitantly. "At least, I think it is—Hector Owen it was or used to be."
"Well, it really doesn't make a great deal of difference," said the other. "Nevertheless, it's convenient to know. Now, unlike you, I'm almost certain that my name is Horace Larkin—Horace and Hector, quite a coincidence, what? Oh, very good. Am I veering?"
Mr. Owen was looking at his companion with growing alarm and suspicion. The man was giving signs of mental instability which, added to his obvious moral looseness, did not make an admirable combination. Before he could find a suitable reply to Mr. Larkin's childish inanity his attention was diverted by the sight of a large, sinister, wild-eyed individual rushing down one of the aisles in the direction of the nearest doorway.
"Yes, yes," Mr. Larkin was murmuring contentedly, "I do so hate monotony. Now. what can this be about? That desperate-looking chap seems to be in a great hurry to get somewhere else."
The desperate-looking chap was, and as he dashed past the spot where they were standing a glittering object, falling from his pocket, rolled up to their feet. Quickly Mr. Owen's companion stooped and picked it up.
"Dear me," he said in a distressed voice, "someone's been stealing diamonds again. Now, isn't that too bad. No wonder we're going bankrupt. Diamonds are very valuable, you know. The things cost no end of money. Why can't they steal something else for a change—groceries, for instance?"
A large blonde gentleman wearing heavy black eyebrows and a fashionably tailored suit of tweeds, and a small, meek-looking individual who in spite of his faultlessly cut morning attire impressed Mr. Owen as being a trifle drunk, appeared in the open plaza and, spying Mr. Horace Larkin, marched up to him with gestures of agitation. Following them was a clerk who appeared totally disinterested.
"I know," began Mr. Larkin without giving the others an opportunity to speak. "And here I was just saying how I loathed monotony. Don't tell me about it. I also loathe being upset and I am going to be upset whether I loathe it or not. You know—that luncheon. Presently we all must go to it. All of us. Even you must go to that luncheon, Dinner." Here Mr. Larkin pointed to the smaller of the two men and added parenthetically for the benefit of Mr. Owen, "His name is Dinner. It really is. Makes things confusing when luncheon comes before or after it, but I can't help that now. Don't tell me," he went on to the others. "We've been robbed again, haven't we? Thieves shouldn't take diamonds. It's not at all sporting. They're too damn easy to carry."
"But don't you think we should induce someone to pursue this beggar?" the large blonde gentleman mumbled. "Offer a sort of a bonus thing?"
"Yes," piped up Mr. Dinner, producing a gold flask of beautiful design and helping himself to its contents. "Yes," he continued over the crest of a slight huskiness. "Shouldn't we send somebody after this beggar to shout out in a great voice, 'Stop thief! Stop thief!' and act excited and all?"
Mr. Larkin gazed at the little gentleman with pity and affection, then his expression became serious.
"Why do both of you keep on calling this chap a beggar," he asked irritably, "when most obviously he's a thief of the worst character? Let's get this straight—did he ask for the diamonds, or did he take them without asking?"
"He took 'em without a word," said the clerk in a bored voice.
"There," resumed Mr. Larkin after a thoughtful pause, "the man must have stolen the diamonds. He's not a beggar."
"He certainly did," owlishly proclaimed the one known as Dinner, once more producing the flask. "And I think someone should scream about it."
"I very much feel like screaming about it myself," observed Mr. Larkin. "I really do. Anyway, we haven't anybody who is especially good at doing that sort of thing—screaming, you know. This chap was running very fast, very fast indeed—tiresomely so. None of us can run very fast, and we all loathe running."
Although the sensation of freedom and well-being still persisted with Mr. Owen, he felt, nevertheless, as he listened to all this, that he was going not a little but definitely and completely mad. And the strange part of it was he did not seem to care, rather enjoyed it, in fact. However, he did think it time to interpose a slight suggestion.
"How about the police?" he asked. "Shouldn't someone scream after them?"
Mr. Horace Larkin hopelessly shook his head.
"We also loathe the police," he replied. "In all probability that chap was the police. By this time he has tucked those diamonds in the safe at headquarters. Did he steal many of them?"
"Almost a handful," answered the clerk. "Big ones."
"That's a lot of diamonds," Mr. Larkin murmured regretfully. "I feel very low about losing so many. They were good big diamonds. Is anyone minding the rest of the jewellery?"
"Not a living soul," breathed Mr. Dinner, his eyes growing large. "The counter is all alone. You see, we brought George, here, along to tell you all about it."
Mr. Owen was frankly stunned. These three men must be figments of his own disordered mind. Such simplicity was impossible.
"Dinner, put that flask back or we'll have to carry you to luncheon," Mr. Larkin commanded, then fell silent to ponder upon this fresh problem. "Well," he resumed at last, "that's not at all right. That's almost sheer carelessness. If someone doesn't watch all those precious stones we won't have any left, and that wouldn't look at all well for a big store like this." He turned to the clerk. "George," he said briskly, "you'd better hurry back to those jewels, what there is left of them, and make out a claim for the insurance company. Add as much as you think is safe to the value of the stuff stolen. Don't scrimp. I can't stand scrimping. We may be able to make a not inconsiderable piece of change out of this regrettable incident after all. Waste not, want not. You get what I mean." Mr. Owen was appalled by the callous dishonesty of Mr. Horace Larkin. Up to this point he had looked upon him as something extra special in the line of lunatics. Now he regarded him in the light of a menace to society in general and to insurance companies in particular. Once more he felt himself called upon to project his greater wisdom and ethics into this mad discussion.
"But such an action," he protested, "would not be at all right."
The suavely polished Mr. Larkin nodded a reluctant agreement.
"It's not right, I know," he said. "I think it's simply terrible myself, but you know how it is. Everybody does it, almost literally everybody—really nice people. You'd be surprised." In spite of his legal experience, Mr. Owen confessed he was. "And then again," Mr. Larkin added confidentially, "none of us likes insurance companies very much. It's such a bother to pay their premiums, and they get so annoyingly stuffy about it when you don't. You can see for yourself, if we don't cheat the insurance company, we won't make any money on all those lovely diamonds, and that wouldn't be so good for us, would it?"
"But wouldn't it be better," pursued Mr. Owen, "to arrange things so that your lovely diamonds wouldn't be stolen?"
"That's an idea worth thinking about," the gentleman in tweeds put in, his deep voice carrying a serious, laboured note. "How about shooting a couple of customers suddenly just as a bit of a warning?"
Once more Mr. Owen was unpleasantly impressed with his company. Were all these gentlemen dangerous maniacs?
"If we did that," Mr. Dinner objected, "we might find it difficult to induce any of our customers to go near the diamond counter at all. I wouldn't go myself. People don't like to be shot for no reason."
"People don't like to be shot for any reason," Horace Larkin corrected, as if depressed by the unreasonableness of the human race.
"Why shoot 'em, then?" continued Mr. Dinner triumphantly. "Especially since they don't like it."
"But," contributed the blonde gentleman, "it wouldn't do any good to shoot them if they did like it."
"It seems," observed Mr. Larkin, "that somebody has to be shot at some time, but don't ask me why. I don't know, and I don't like revolvers. In fact, I simply——"
"Loathe them," Mr. Owen supplied, in spite of himself.
"Yes," continued Mr. Larkin, "I loathe a lot of revolvers knocking about the store. Dinner, here, might take it into his head to shoot up the place during one of his drunken orgies. He's like that." Mr. Owen gazed at the meek Dinner with increased alarm and respect. "How's this for an idea?" Larkin went on, and at this point he fastidiously shot his white cuffs, waved delicately to a passing salesgirl, then turned briskly to his companions. "Suppose," he said, "we run a full-page advertisement in all of the better newspapers stating in bold-face type that our diamonds and other precious stones are false as hell and hardly worth the effort to carry away. Someone can think up the right words. This gentleman, here, perhaps," he indicated Mr. Owen. "He looks as if he knew a lot of words."
"Wouldn't that be a better advertisement to run about someone else's store?" Mr. Dinner suggested, blinking thoughtfully. "About some competitor, for instance."
"Sure thing," chimed in the gentleman in tweeds enthusiastically. "If we ran a whole series of them we might ruin their business."
"No go," replied the suave gentleman. "We can only do that by spreading rumours. If we print advertisements about our competitors we might get into trouble. You see, it's all very well to print lies about our own store, but if we print them about our competitors, they might sue us for libel."
"Be just like 'em, too, the dirty crooks," said the tweedy giant. "Well, here we all stand waiting."
At the mention of waiting Mr. Owen experienced an uneasy feeling that the past was creeping silently up to surround him and carry him off. When had he last been waiting and where? To escape the memory, dim as it was, he turned to his three companions almost eagerly. He would cling to them and go mad in their own peculiar way. Anything would be preferable to that dull, anxious depression lying somewhere behind him in the shadows. He did not feel low any more and for so many months he had felt low—low, spiritless, and disillusioned. Here was no sadness, and certainly it seemed almost impossible to keep these men depressed for more than the lengths of an inane sentence. And surely for their own sakes as well as for the public's, some sober mind should stay with them. For a moment Mr. Owen was seized with the fear that they might forget all about him in their charming way, and walk off, leaving him alone. They needed a sympathetic companion no less than he needed their companionship—someone like himself to see that they did injury neither to themselves nor to anyone else. That idea about shooting customers—now, that was all wrong. It was not a right idea. Although he realised they were not quite sane, Mr. Owen found something insidiously appealing about their special brand of insanity. They seemed to be so perfectly happy in their madness, so contented and busy about it, so full of daft ideas and unhelpful suggestions. Perhaps, after all, they were sane and he had been mad all his life. What did it matter? However, as the deliberations progressed he found it difficult to entertain this idea. These men were mental cases, or else they possessed an altogether new type of mind. Of that there could be no doubt. Mr. Owen became aware that the blonde gentleman was asking questions.
"But look here," the man was saying, "isn't this a bit of a hitch? If we print an advertisement saying that we have a lot of bum jewellery, won't that keep customers away as well as burglars?"
"Not necessarily," Mr. Larkin replied. "I thought that out, too. We can station attendants at the doorways to tell customers not to pay any attention to the advertisement because we were only fooling."
This answer apparently satisfied the objections of the tweeds. Mr. Dinner, however, was stubborn about it.
"But suppose one of the attendants tells a burglar?" he inquired. "We can't very well ask our customers as they come in if they are burglars or not."
"Not very well," Mr. Larkin replied slowly. "That wouldn't put them in the proper mood to buy. Maybe no burglars will come in on those days."
"On what days?" asked the gentleman with the eyebrows.
"On the days when we have to tell our customers who are not burglars," patiently replied Mr. Larkin.
"From the way things keep disappearing in this store," the blonde man moodily commented, "I suspect all our customers of being burglars."
"Of course," observed Mr. Larkin. "we steal some of the things ourselves and then pawn them when we're short of cash."
"And we make presents, too," added the blonde man. "Fur coats and such like to women."
"I know," Mr. Larkin agreed, "but in one way that saves us a lot of money. I think we're very fortunate to have a nice department store. There's hardly a woman in town who will say no for long with a whole department store to choose from."
"In all the world," supplied the meek Mr. Dinner.
"Then I guess we'll have to let this burglar escape?" said the large man.
"We don't have to let him escape," replied Horace Larkin. "He will take care of his own escape. In fact, I suspect he already has." He broke off and concentrated his gaze on one of the broad aisles. "But what new diversion have we here?" he asked. "You know, running a store like this keeps us dreadfully on the dash. I'll be glad when lunch time comes, and then again, I won't."
Following the direction of Mr. Larkin's gaze, Mr. Owen watched the new diversion approach with increasing interest. Four beautifully formed girls clad in the sheerest underwear were speeding down the aisle. Behind them sped four decidedly determined gentlemen almost, but not quite, draped in towels. As unprepared as he was for this sort of thing, Mr. Owen was even less prepared for what followed. One of the girls, when about three feet off, flung herself upon him and as far as he was able to establish began to climb up to his shoulders. He had a confused picture of bare arms and legs busily doing things with his body, and even at that moment he could not help wondering if the young woman thought he had a pair of stirrups strapped round his waist. Ducking his head momentarily beneath an energetically upraised knee he caught a glimpse of his companions and discovered with some satisfaction that they were similarly occupied. Mr. Owen's profession had made him more or less familiar with the various physical indications of assault. He found these distressingly present with the difference that the tables were now turned. Even while he was struggling, his legal mind was engaged with problems of what chance a man had for a successful verdict when suing a lady for rape. In a criminal action the man, he decided, would have no standing at all. A man could be so assaulted almost repeatedly without altering greatly either his social or physical status whereas with a woman it might make a lot of difference. On the other hand, no woman would want a husband who was going to be raped all the time. There might be something in that. He did not know. He was much too busy. To steady himself, he involuntarily thrust up an arm and laid a hand on the young lady who was by this time somewhere in the neighbourhood of his neck. He could hear the deep breathing of his companions who were labouring with their respective burdens. No sooner, however, had he seized his fair rider than his hand was smartly slapped.
"Don't grab me so careless-like," she told him.
Mr. Owen was upset.
"How shall I grab you?" he faltered.
"Do you have to be told how to grab me?" she demanded. "Where would you grab a lady?"
"I never grabbed a lady," replied Mr. Owen. "That is, not one in your condition."
"Well, brother, you've missed a lot," said the girl pityingly.
"If you'd stop shoving down on my belt," Mr. Owen complained, "I might barely be able to keep my trousers up."
"I can't," gasped the girl. "If by shoving myself up I happen to shove your trousers down, it's just too bad."
"It's more than too bad," Mr. Owen told her. "It's far more serious than you think. The trousers are not all. In some strange manner you seem to have got your toes locked in my shorts."
"Don't make me laugh," the girl admonished. "I don't want to fall off now that I've got myself comfortably up."
"Ruthlessly up, I'd say," muttered Mr. Owen.
To save his trousers he placed his hands on his hips and stood swaying in front of a number of spectators, many of whom received the impression they were witnessing an act put on by a slightly out of practice acrobat and his partner for their special edification. Strange things were always taking place in this store. Those four men in towels—what were they doing there and why were they being restrained by so many attendants?
"It's all right, girls," Mr. Owen heard Horace Larkin saying reassuringly. "You may come down when you like. The gentlemen are being held. What is it all about anyway?" Fortunately for Mr. Owen's trousers his burden was the first to hit the floor.
"Those four would-be cave men wouldn't believe we were working," she exclaimed furiously. "They insisted on playing with us, and they began to take it too seriously. We got frightened and ran. Besides, it's office hours."
"A most commendable attitude to take," replied Mr. Owen, "especially during office hours. Perhaps, only in office hours. Where did this action take place, may I ask?"
"In the swimming pool," said another young lady, springing lightly up from the small body of the prostrate Dinner. "We came in to give our review and found them swimming about without a stitch. They wouldn't believe we were models. Started in right there and then. Would you believe it, Mr. Larkin?"
"Yes," answered Mr. Larkin. "From my point of view, it seems almost inevitable, under the circumstances. You know how easily one thing suggests another. May I ask why you were staging your delightful review in the swimming pool?"
"Major Britt-Britt told us to do it," chimed in a third young lady in scanty attire. "Last night he told us. He said that our department would be closed for redecorating and that until further notice we should hold our fashion reviews in the swimming pool, didn't you, Maj?"
"Call him Major, call him Major," said Mr. Larkin in a low voice. "There's a lot of customers knocking about." He turned smilingly to the Major, who was looking a little uncomfortable under his furious mop of blonde hair and heavy black eyebrows. "And I fancy, Major," Mr. Larkin continued, "that from the pressure of business resulting from the universal popularity of this magnificent yet essentially reasonably priced modern mart of merchandise you overlooked the slight detail of notifying the proper authorities that the swimming pool should not be used by our naked customers during the period of the review?"
"It slipped my mind," muttered the Major.
"You big stiff," surprisingly observed Mr. Dinner, rising from the floor and instinctively reaching for his hip pocket, an action which Mr. Larkin was prompt in intercepting, "there's not enough room on that mind of yours for anything to slip off of. That girl nearly tore me to pieces with her great clutching hands. Can't tell me she was as worried about her confounded honour as all that."
"Don't be disagreeable," Mr. Larkin told the little man. "And don't talk so lightly about a lady's honour in public. It may be a confounded nuisance and a terrific social handicap, but some women still cling to it. What are we going to do about these four gentlemen, now? They strike me as being more offended against than offending. Under similar circumstances, I would have made the same mistake myself."
"You'd have acted worse," proclaimed one of the girls. "Don't I know."
Mr. Larkin coughed loudly.
"Not here," he said rapidly under his breath. "Not here. These people won't understand how we run this store. They're quite, quite narrow, my dear."
"But we told them to wait," one of the girls protested. "We kept telling them we were busy and asked them if they wouldn't wait."
"And they didn't want to wait?" Mr. Larkin asked, interested in spite of himself.
"No," said the girl. "They claimed they couldn't wait."
"They must be in a bad way," Mr. Larkin remarked as if to himself. "We seem to be doing everything in this store this morning except selling goods to customers. Another day like this, and we'll be in the hands of the receivers." Producing a notebook he hastily scribbled an address on a leaf, tore the leaf out, and handed it to one of the towelled gentlemen. "Sorry about all this," he continued easily, "but if you pop off right now I'm sure you won't have to wait. Better get dressed first, though— at least temporarily."
Eagerly making plans among themselves, the four gentlemen hurried off. When a safe distance had been put between them and the models Mr. Larkin sent the girls about their business; then, locking arms with Mr. Owen, he walked off down an aisle in the direction of his private office. Mr. Dinner and Major Britt-Britt followed in like fashion. Thus they made an impressive and dignified exit from the eyes of their admiring patrons, who seemed still somewhat puzzled over what it had all been about. As soon as the door to Mr. Horace Larkin's amazing office closed behind the four backs he turned courteously to Mr. Owen and took one of that gentleman's hands in his.
"My dear sir, I'm sorry," said Mr. Larkin. "I've been neglecting you terribly. What would you like to sell this morning?"
"What!" gasped Mr. Owen. "Do I have to sell something?"
"Certainly," replied Mr. Larkin gently. "We all have to sell something. You're a full-fledged partner, you know."
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