Somewhere in your story you must pause to describe your heroine’s costume. It is a ticklish task. The average reader likes his heroine well dressed. He is not satisfied with knowing that she looked like a tall, fair lily. He wants to be told that her gown was of green crepe, with lace ruffles that swirled at her feet. Writers used to go so far as to name the dressmaker; and it was a poor kind of a heroine who didn’t wear a red velvet by Worth. But that has been largely abandoned in these days of commissions. Still, when the heroine goes out on the terrace to spoon after dinner (a quaint old English custom for the origin of which see any novel by the ‘Duchess,’ page 179) the average reader wants to know what sort of a filmy wrap she snatches up on the way out. He demands a description, with as many illustrations as the publisher will stand for, of what she wore from the bedroom to the street, with full stops for the ribbons on her robe de nuit, and the buckles on her ballroom slippers. Half the poor creatures one sees flattening their noses against the shop windows are authors getting a line on the advance fashions. Suppose a careless writer were to dress his heroine in a full-plaited skirt only to find, when his story is published four months later, that full-plaited skirts have been relegated to the dim past!
I started to read a story once. It was a good one. There was in it not a single allusion to brandy-and-soda, or divorce, or the stock market. The dialogue crackled. The hero talked like a live man. It was a shipboard story, and the heroine was charming so long as she wore her heavy ulster. But along toward evening she blossomed forth in a yellow gown, with a scarlet poinsettia at her throat. I quit her cold. Nobody ever wore a scarlet poinsettia; or if they did, they couldn’t wear it on a yellow gown. Or if they did wear it with a yellow gown, they didn’t wear it at the throat. Scarlet poinsettias aren’t worn, anyhow. To this day I don’t know whether the heroine married the hero or jumped overboard.
You see, one can’t be too careful about clothing one’s heroine.
I hesitate to describe Sophy Epstein’s dress. You won’t like it. In the first place, it was cut too low, front and back, for a shoe clerk in a downtown loft. It was a black dress, near-princess in style, very tight as to fit, very short as to skirt, very sleazy as to material. It showed all the delicate curves of Sophy’s under-fed, girlish body, and Sophy didn’t care a bit. Its most objectionable feature was at the throat. Collarless gowns were in vogue. Sophy’s daring shears had gone a snip or two farther. They had cut a startlingly generous V. To say that the dress was elbow-sleeved is superfluous. I have said that Sophy clerked in a downtown loft.
Sophy sold ‘sample’ shoes at two-fifty a pair, and from where you were standing you thought they looked just like the shoes that were sold in the regular shops for six. When Sophy sat on one of the low benches at the feet of some customer, tugging away at a refractory shoe for a would-be small foot, her shameless little gown exposed more than it should have. But few of Sophy’s customers were shocked. They were mainly chorus girls and ladies of doubtful complexion in search of cheap and ultra footgear, and — to use a health term — hardened by exposure.
Have I told you how pretty she was? She was so pretty that you immediately forgave her the indecency of her pitiful little gown. She was pretty in a daringly demure fashion, like a wicked little Puritan, or a poverty-stricken Cleo de Merode, with her smooth brown hair parted in the middle, drawn severely down over her ears, framing the lovely oval of her face and ending in a simple coil at the neck. Some serpent’s wisdom had told Sophy to eschew puffs. But I think her prettiness could have triumphed even over those.
If Sophy’s boss had been any other sort of man he would have informed Sophy, sternly, that black princess effects, cut low, were not au fait in the shoe-clerk world. But Sophy’s boss had a rhombic nose, and no instep, and the tail of his name had been amputated. He didn’t care how Sophy wore her dresses so long as she sold shoes.
Once the boss had kissed Sophy — not on the mouth, but just where her shabby gown formed its charming but immodest V. Sophy had slapped him, of course. But the slap had not set the thing right in her mind. She could not forget it. It had made her uncomfortable in much the same way as we are wildly ill at ease when we dream of walking naked in a crowded street. At odd moments during the day Sophy had found herself rubbing the spot furiously with her unlovely handkerchief, and shivering a little. She had never told the other girls about that kiss.
So — there you have Sophy and her costume. You may take her or leave her. I purposely placed these defects in costuming right at the beginning of the story, so that there should be no false pretenses. One more detail. About Sophy’s throat was a slender, near-gold chain from which was suspended a cheap and glittering La Valliere. Sophy had not intended it as a sop to the conventions. It was an offering on the shrine of Fashion, and represented many lunchless days.
At eleven o’clock one August morning, Louie came to Chicago from Oskaloosa, Iowa. There was no hay in his hair. The comic papers have long insisted that the country boy, on his first visit to the city, is known by his greased boots and his high-water pants. Don’t you believe them. The small-town boy is as fastidious about the height of his heels and the stripe of his shift and the roll of his hat-brim as are his city brothers. He peruses the slangily worded ads of the ‘classy clothes’ tailors, and when scarlet cravats are worn the small-town boy is not more than two weeks late in acquiring one that glows like a headlight.
Louie found a rooming-house, shoved his suitcase under the bed, changed his collar, washed his hands in the gritty water of the wash bowl, and started out to look for a job.
Louie was twenty-one. For the last four years he had been employed in the best shoe store at home, and he knew shoe leather from the factory to the ash barrel. It was almost a religion with him.
Curiosity, which plays leads in so many life dramas, led Louie to the rotunda of the tallest building. It was built on the hollow centre plan, with a sheer drop from the twenty-somethingth to the main floor. Louie stationed himself in the centre of the mosaic floor, took off his hat, bent backward almost double and gazed, his mouth wide open. When he brought his muscles slowly back into normal position he tried hard not to look impressed. He glanced about, sheepishly, to see if any one was laughing at him, and his eye encountered the electric-lighted glass display case of the shoe company upstairs. The case was filled with pink satin slippers and cunning velvet boots, and the newest thing in bronze street shoes. Louie took the next elevator up. The shoe display had made him feel as though some one from home had slapped him on the back.
The God of the Jobless was with him. The boss had fired two boys the day before.
‘Oskaloosa!’ grinned the boss, derisively. ‘Do they wear shoes there? What do you know about shoes, huh boy?’
Louie told him. The boss shuffled the papers on his desk, and chewed his cigar, and tried not to show his surprise. Louie, quite innocently, was teaching the boss things about the shoe business.
When Louie had finished — ‘Well, I try you, anyhow,’ the boss grunted, grudgingly. ‘I give you so-and-so much.’ He named a wage that would have been ridiculous if it had not been so pathetic.
‘All right, sir,’ answered Louie, promptly, like the boys in the Alger series. The cost of living problem had never bothered Louie in Oskaloosa.
The boss hid a pleased smile.
‘Miss Epstein!’ he bellowed, ‘step this way! Miss Epstein, kindly show this here young man so he gets a line on the stock. He is from Oskaloosa, Ioway. Look out she don’t sell you a gold brick, Louie.’
But Louie was not listening. He was gazing at the V in Sophy Epstein’s dress with all his scandalised Oskaloosa, Iowa, eyes.
Louie was no mollycoddle. But he had been in great demand as usher at the Young Men’s Sunday Evening Club service at the Congregational church, and in his town there had been no Sophy Epsteins in too-tight princess dresses, cut into a careless V. But Sophy was a city product — I was about to say pure and simple, but I will not — wise, bold, young, old, underfed, overworked, and triumphantly pretty.
‘How-do!’ cooed Sophy in her best baby tones. Louie’s disapproving eyes jumped from the objectionable V in Sophy’s dress to the lure of Sophy’s face, and their expression underwent a lightning change. There was no disapproving Sophy’s face, no matter how long one had dwelt in Oskaloosa.
‘I won’t bite you,’ said Sophy. ‘I’m never vicious on Tuesdays. We’ll start here with the misses’ an’ children’s, and work over to the other side.’
Whereupon Louie was introduced into the intricacies of the sample shoe business. He kept his eyes resolutely away from the V, and learned many things. He learned how shoes that look like six dollar values may be sold for two-fifty. He looked on in wide-eyed horror while Sophy fitted a No. 5 C shoe on a 6 B foot and assured the wearer that it looked like a made-to-order boot. He picked up a pair of dull kid shoes and looked at them. His leather-wise eyes saw much, and I think he would have taken his hat off the hook, and his offended business principles out of the shop forever if Sophy had not completed her purchase and strolled over to him at the psychological moment.
She smiled up at him, impudently. ‘Well, Pink Cheeks,’ she said, ‘how do you like our little settlement by the lake, huh?’
‘These shoes aren’t worth two-fifty,’ said Louie, indignation in his voice.
‘Well, sure,’ replied Sophy. ‘I know it. What do you think this is? A charity bazaar?’
‘But back home — began Louie, hotly.
‘Ferget it, kid,’ said Sophy. ‘This is a big town, but it ain’t got no room for back-homers. Don’t sour on one job till you’ve got another nailed. You’ll find yourself cuddling down on a park bench if you do. Say, are you honestly from Oskaloosa?’
‘I certainly am,’ answered Louie, with pride.
‘My goodness!’ ejaculated Sophy. ‘I never believed there was no such place. Don’t brag about it to the other fellows.’
‘What time do you go out for lunch?’ asked Louie.
‘What’s it to you?’ with the accent on the ‘to.’
‘When I want to know a thing, I generally ask,’ explained Louie, gently.
Sophy looked at him — a long, keen, knowing look. ‘You’ll learn,’ she observed, thoughtfully.
Louie did learn. He learned so much in that first week that when Sunday came it seemed as though aeons had passed over his head. He learned that the crime of murder was as nothing compared to the crime of allowing a customer to depart shoeless; he learned that the lunch hour was invented for the purpose of making dates; that no one had ever heard of Oskaloosa, Iowa; that seven dollars a week does not leave much margin for laundry and general recklessness; that a madonna face above a V-cut gown is apt to distract one’s attention from shoes; that a hundred-dollar nest egg is as effective in Chicago as a pine stick would be in propping up a stone wall; and that all the other men clerks called Sophy ‘sweetheart.’
Some of his newly acquired knowledge brought pain, as knowledge is apt to do.
He saw that State Street was crowded with Sophys during the noon hour; girls with lovely faces under pitifully absurd hats. Girls who aped the fashions of the dazzling creatures they saw stepping from limousines. Girls who starved body and soul in order to possess a set of false curls, or a pair of black satin shoes with mother-o’-pearl buttons. Girls whose minds were bounded on the north by the nickel theatres; on the east by ‘I sez to him;’ on the south by the gorgeous shop windows; and on the west by ‘He sez t’ me.’
Oh, I can’t tell you how much Louie learned in that first week while his eyes were getting accustomed to the shifting, jostling, pushing, giggling, walking, talking throng. The city is justly famed as a hot house of forced knowledge.
One thing Louie could not learn. He could not bring himself to accept the V in Sophy’s dress. Louie’s mother had been one of the old-fashioned kind who wore a blue-and-white checked gingham apron from 6 A.M. to 2 P.M., when she took it off to go downtown and help the ladies of the church at the cake sale in the empty window of the gas company’s office, only to don it again when she fried the potatoes for supper. Among other things she had taught Louie to wipe his feet before coming in, to respect and help women, and to change his socks often.
After a month of Chicago Louie forgot the first lesson; had more difficulty than I can tell you in reverencing a woman who only said, ‘Aw, don’t get fresh now!’ when the other men put their arms about her; and adhered to the third only after a struggle, in which he had to do a small private washing in his own wash-bowl in the evening.
Sophy called him a stiff. His gravely courteous treatment of her made her vaguely uncomfortable. She was past mistress in the art of parrying insults and banter, but she had no reply ready for Louie’s boyish air of deference. It angered her for some unreasonable woman-reason.
There came a day when the V-cut dress brought them to open battle. I think Sophy had appeared that morning minus the chain and La Valliere. Frail and cheap as it was, it had been the only barrier that separated Sophy from frank shamelessness. Louie’s outraged sense of propriety asserted itself.
‘Sophy,’ he stammered, during a quiet half-hour, ‘I’ll call for you and take you to the nickel show to-night if you’ll promise not to wear that dress. What makes you wear that kind of a get-up, anyway?’
‘Dress?’ queried Sophy, looking down at the shiny front breadth of her frock. ‘Why? Don’t you like it?’
‘Like it! No!’ blurted Louie.
‘Don’t yuh, rully! Deah me! Deah me! If I’d only knew that this morning. As a gen’ral thing I wear white duck complete down t’ work, but I’m savin’ my last two clean suits f’r gawlf.’
Louie ran an uncomfortable finger around the edge of his collar, but he stood his ground. ‘It — it — shows your — neck so,’ he objected, miserably.
Sophy opened her great eyes wide. ‘Well, supposin’ it does?’ she inquired, coolly. ‘It’s a perfectly good neck, ain’t it?’
Louie, his face very red, took the plunge. ‘I don’t know. I guess so. But, Sophy, it — looks so — so — you know what I mean. I hate to see the way the fellows rubber at you. Why don’t you wear those plain shirtwaist things, with high collars, like my mother wears back home?’
Sophy’s teeth came together with a click. She laughed a short cruel little laugh. ‘Say, Pink Cheeks, did yuh ever do a washin’ from seven to twelve, after you got home from work in the evenin’? It’s great! ‘Specially when you’re living in a six-by-ten room with all the modern inconveniences, includin’ no water except on the third floor down. Simple! Say, a child could work it. All you got to do, when you get home so tired your back teeth ache, is to haul your water, an’ soak your clothes, an’ then rub ’em till your hands peel, and rinse ’em, an’ boil ’em, and blue ’em, an’ starch ’em. See? Just like that. Nothin’ to it, kid. Nothin’ to it.’
Louie had been twisting his fingers nervously. Now his hands shut themselves into fists. He looked straight into Sophy’s angry eyes.
‘I do know what it is,’ he said, quite simply. ‘There’s been a lot written and said about women’s struggle with clothes. I wonder why they’ve never said anything about the way a man has to fight to keep up the thing they call appearances. God knows it’s pathetic enough to think of a girl like you bending over a tubful of clothes. But when a man has to do it, it’s a tragedy.’
‘That’s so,’ agreed Sophy. ‘When a girl gets shabby, and her clothes begin t’ look tacky she can take a gore or so out of her skirt where it’s the most wore, and catch it in at the bottom, and call it a hobble. An’ when her waist gets too soiled she can cover up the front of it with a jabot, an’ if her face is pretty enough she can carry it off that way. But when a man is seedy, he’s seedy. He can’t sew no ruffles on his pants.’
‘I ran short last week,’ continued Louie. ‘That is, shorter than usual. I hadn’t the fifty cents to give to the woman. You ought to see her! A little, gray-faced thing, with wisps of hair, and no chest to speak of, and one of those mashed-looking black hats. Nobody could have the nerve to ask her to wait for her money. So I did my own washing. I haven’t learned to wear soiled clothes yet. I laughed fit to bust while I was doing it. But — I’ll bet my mother dreamed of me that night. The way they do, you know, when something’s gone wrong.’
Sophy, perched on the third rung of the sliding ladder, was gazing at him. Her lips were parted slightly, and her cheeks were very pink. On her face was a new, strange look, as of something half forgotten. It was as though the spirit of Sophy-as-she-might-have-been were inhabiting her soul for a brief moment. At Louie’s next words the look was gone.
‘Can’t you sew something — a lace yoke — or whatever you call ’em — in that dress?’ he persisted.
‘Aw, fade!’ jeered Sophy. ‘When a girl’s only got one dress it’s got to have some tong to it. Maybe this gown would cause a wave of indignation in Oskaloosa, Iowa, but it don’t even make a ripple on State Street. It takes more than an aggravated Dutch neck to make a fellow look at a girl these days. In a town like this a girl’s got to make a showin’ some way. I’m my own stage manager. They look at my dress first, an’ grin. See? An’ then they look at my face. I’m like the girl in the story. Muh face is muh fortune. It’s earned me many a square meal; an’ lemme tell you, Pink Cheeks, eatin’ square meals is one of my favourite pastimes.’
‘Say looka here!’ bellowed the boss, wrathfully. ‘Just cut out this here Romeo and Juliet act, will you! That there ladder ain’t for no balcony scene, understand. Here you, Louie, you shinny up there and get down a pair of them brown satin pumps, small size.’
Sophy continued to wear the black dress. The V-cut neck seemed more flaunting than ever.
It was two weeks later that Louie came in from lunch, his face radiant. He was fifteen minutes late, but he listened to the boss’s ravings with a smile.
‘You grin like somebody handed you a ten-case note,” commented Sophy, with a woman’s curiosity. “I guess you must of met some rube from home when you was out t’ lunch.’
‘Better than that! Who do you think I bumped right into in the elevator going down?’
‘Well, Brothah Bones,’ mimicked Sophy, ‘who did you meet in the elevator going down?’
‘I met a man named Ames. He used to travel for a big Boston shoe house, and he made our town every few months. We got to be good friends. I took him home for Sunday dinner once, and he said it was the best dinner he’d had in months. You know how tired those traveling men get of hotel grub.’
‘Cut out the description and get down to action,’ snapped Sophy.
‘Well, he knew me right away. And he made me go out to lunch with him. A real lunch, starting with soup. Gee! It went big. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was working here, and he opened his eyes, and then he laughed and said: ‘How did you get into that joint?’ Then he took me down to a swell little shoe shop on State Street, and it turned out that he owns it. He introduced me all around, and I’m going there to work next week. And wages! Why say, it’s almost a salary. A fellow can hold his head up in a place like that.’
‘When you leavin’?’ asked Sophy, slowly.
‘Monday. Gee! it seems a year away.’
Sophy was late Saturday morning. When she came in, hurriedly, her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes glowed. She took off her hat and coat and fell to straightening boxes and putting out stock without looking up. She took no part in the talk and jest that was going on among the other clerks. One of the men, in search of the missing mate to the shoe in his hand, came over to her, greeting her carelessly. Then he stared.
‘Well, what do you know about this!’ he called out to the others, and laughed coarsely, ‘Look, stop, listen! Little Sophy Bright Eyes here has pulled down the shades.’
Louie turned quickly. The immodest V of Sophy’s gown was filled with a black lace yoke that came up to the very lobes of her little pink ears. She had got some scraps of lace from — Where do they get those bits of rusty black? From some basement bargain counter, perhaps, raked over during the lunch hour. There were nine pieces in the front, and seven in the back. She had sat up half the night putting them together so that when completed they looked like one, if you didn’t come too close. There is a certain strain of Indian patience and ingenuity in women that no man has ever been able to understand.
Louie looked up and saw. His eyes met Sophy’s. In his there crept a certain exultant gleam, as of one who had fought for something great and won. Sophy saw the look. The shy questioning in her eyes was replaced by a spark of defiance. She tossed her head, and turned to the man who had called attention to her costume.
‘Who’s loony now?’ she jeered. ‘I always put in a yoke when it gets along toward fall. My lungs is delicate. And anyway, I see by the papers yesterday that collarless gowns is slightly passay f’r winter.’
Originally published in Buttered Side Down: Short Stories by Edna Ferber, 1912