Next morning when I arrived for work. Major GiOaaft was reclining comfcr-2r:y rehizd his ds:’: ~”:zizg The Times.
‘tjood BBOcni ‘t i zi ; He pot his p^KT c ^ - - - : removed my black satm coa closet. ‘‘I want you to take >^-: __. _i_ :c--_- _- tomed to the job,’^ he said. “Now, lets see.~ He looked abouL In the stacenxan were several gross of artmcial-peaii necklaces seffiag for the eqatfalcBt of &^* rents. I ¦i^t try takiTig a few ““t^^ araoDd to thr He gave me a list of stores to try.
Wnh my goods packed in a ssal bfown e, I went forth on my irst tour as a i q)te sen t-i->c :: the John Graham Caapsajy fancy-goods department. The result was i[ipnnii^ At the end of three days I had failed to s^ a smsle ne^iace. ““Costume jewelry? Not in Jaa-uary, miss. You should have called before Chnstmas.”
It was the same story everywhere.
“Never mind,” said Major Gillam. “Perhaps we are c5 on our timing. Well try placing them before Easter.” He smiled. “Just put them back where they belong. I have SDfDedmig else, here, Miss Sheil, that I think is really first rate.’*
This turned out to be a new aut(xnobile polish calkd ‘^uji-Muji.’^ “Has an Oriental ingredient in k that’s said to be most effective,” Major Gillam explained. “You could try Great Portland Street—dozens of car showrooms are there—and I’m sure you’ll do splendidly.” He patted me on the arm. “Just smile,” he said. “No one can withstand your smile.”
In my big picture hat and trailing coat I fancied I cut a stunning figure, but the salesmen in the showrooms were extremely sophisticated young men who were not easily impressed. I felt conspicuous as I entered the first shrowroom, smiling brightly, and asked, “May I see the manager, please?”
I beamed at the handsome man with a finely waxed mustache who approached me. “I have a new polish for cars, the famous Suji-Muji Oriental Paste. I would like to show you how much better it is than what you are using now.”
The manager, rubbing a finger delicately along his mustache, looked at me with an amused gUnt in his eye. “Suji-what, miss?” he asked.
I repeated the name with dignity. “Suji-Muji. May I demonstrate it, sir?”
By now three or four salesmen, each with bright tie and white handkerchief overflowing his breast pocket, had joined us. They listened with considerable interest.
The manager smiled broadly. “Well,” he said, “there’s a car over there you might use.” Followed by the men, I walked to the car. The manager said, “Would you mind trying it on the lower fender?” He explained that he could not risk spotting an area easily visible.
There was nothing for me to do but get down on my knees and apply the polish where he indicated. I set to work. “You see, only a small amount is required,” I enunciated carefully. I looked up to see my audience exchanging glances. “And with this cloth which comes in the tin—you take a small amount and gently rub back and forth, back and forth—” I looked up as I rubbed, smiling hopefully. Some of the men had changed positions and were now studying my work from the rear. They ogled me shamelessly as I polished, on my hands and knees: I felt my clothes were all but transparent, but I plunged on doggedly. “And now—you see how clean and sparkling it is!”
I scrambled to my feet. The comer of the fender shone like a mirror. The men looked at me, nodding appreciatively. “Beautiful stuff,” one said, with a wink.
The manager said, “If you’ll come over here, miss—” He bought one tin of polish. As I gave him his change, he lowered his voice. “What are you doing later on?”
I was most indignant. “I’m sorry,” I said icily. “I shall be selling Suji-Muji elsewhere, thank you.” I stalked out. How dared he not treat me seriously as a sales representative!
It took only a few days to prove a distressing lack of demand for Suji-Muji Oriental Paste. When I informed Major Gillam, he was as unperturbed as before. “Timing is most important, as you’ll learn,” he explained. “We’ll try selling them after a rainy spell when cars need a wash and polish.” He went on, “Please don’t let this upset you. I told you I’ll have all sorts of things you can help me with.” I said to myself, this is the sn’eetest man!
“One duty I haven’t told you about,” he said. “As you know, I have a large mail-order business, and I am obliged to get out an enormous number of letters each week. Would you mind staying a Uttle later tonight and helping me?”
I was so grateful’ for the salary he continued to pay me, for his lack of concern over my failure as a saleswoman, for his gentleness, that I was his willing slave. “Oh yes, I’d be happy to.”
At five-thirty, I sat opposite him at his desk. He was busy signing letters the girls had typed for him. As he finished one he passed it to me, with the envelope. I inserted the letter, licked the flap and sealed it. Then I licked a stamp and fixed it on. Every little while he looked up. “Are you tired? You sure you don’t mind doing this?”
I licked an envelope happily and shook my head. “Oh, no, I enjoy it.”
One envelope called for extra postage. It was bound for Paris. “Oh, I know that name,” I exclaimed. “It’s Channel!” I had recognized it, for Chanel was a famous perfume.
Major Gillam smiled at me. “That’s a French name, Lily. You pronounce it Shan—el.” I was mortified. I thought, if I’d been of gentle birth and sent to a French finishing school, I would not be caught making a humiliating mistake like that. A little later, as I glanced through The Times, waiting for him while he caught up with his letters, I remarked, “It’s so interesting what it says in the papers about the debuntees being presented at court—”
He roared. I looked up, startled. “Forgive me, Lily,” he said. “But you pronounce it debu-tantes—not dcbun-tees.” And he laughed again. “Good Lord, how amusing!” I reddened but laughed with him. I couldn’t get angry at Major Gillam. Sitting there opposite him, I was aU in a warm glow. For now I was in a brightly lit office, laughing and chatting with a kind and charming gentleman, and working girls from the East End who might be going by on buses looking longingly into the windows— why, it was me they were seeing and envying. I thought, I owe this man so much.
One night, as he finished signing the last letter, he sat back and sighed. “By Jove, it’s been a long day,” he said. “Nearly seven o’clock. How would you like to have dio-ner with me?”
I blushed. “Sh... you mustn’t talk like that.”
He looked surprised. “Why not?”
I tried to explain that it would not be proper, because I worked for him. Though I couldn’t envision him as one of the gentlemen following me in Piccadilly, I knew that girls who allowed their employers to become familiar with them invariably ended by losing their jobs. And while Major Gillam fascinated me and I adored him, two pounds a week and commission were too precious to endanger.
A week passed before I agreed. Then it was a trip abroad that seemed to make it permissible. Major Gillam, I had learned, had offices in France and Belgium—at least, business connections. One week end he was obliged to go to Brussels. Would I like to go with him as far as Dover, to see him off on the boat train?
I was enchanted. This was the role of a confidential secretary, to accompany her employer to the boat train— and it partook of great adventure, seeing a man off to the Continent. It was vague, golden, mysterious—^the Continent! I would be seeing a man off to Europe!
Once before I had been on a train, to BrigJiton. Then I had been traveling third class. This time I was in a first-class compartment. Major Gillam took me into the dining car, with its oak paneling and richly upholstered seats. A steward hovered over us and I munched cheese and biscuits and felt utterly luxurious sitting with my distinguished employer amid the other first-class passengers.
Then I saw him off. He said good-by and put his face forward and automatically I kissed him on the cheek.
Returning to the train, I walked on air. I passed a telegraph office. On impulse I wrote out my first telegram —to Major John Gillam, in Brussels: I HOPE YOU ARRIVED SAFELY. LOVE LILY. I felt daring and sophisticated.
Now we had something between us. When Major Gillam asked me to dinner on the day he returned, I accepted.
He took me to The Mars, a pleasant little caje in Soho. It was not as imposing as the curtained restaurant off Bond Street, but I loved the atmosphere. The maitre d’hotel bowed us to a table on which hummed an electric candle under a pink shade. Nearby were theater parties in evening dress: I was thrilled by their presence. The specialty of The Mars was sole. I enjoyed it so much that when Major Gillam looked the other way, I even popped the bones into my mouth.
The Mars became a once-a-week occurrence with us, usually when I stayed after hours to help with the mail. I always wore my one ensemble—my Wack satin coat, which I kept on through dinner. But each time I leaned forward for a roll, or to whisper a question to Major Gillam, I trailed fringe into the food.
“Oh dear,” he said at one point. “You mustn’t do that —really. You should remove your coat.”
It was Major Gillam, then, who gently and with the greatest tact began to correct my table manners. I was astonished at what I did not know. How to use fish knives, so that I could bone the fish; how to use condiments—at the orphanage we’d never had salt or pepper on the table. He taught me to keep my elbows off the table, not to gesture with my knife or fork, to place them together on my plate when I had finished. He taught me how to wait patiently until ail my food had been served— as far back as I could remember, the mom.ent food was placed before me I began gobbling it down as though I feared it might be snatched away.
He taught me, when introduced, to say, “How d’you do,” not as a question but as a statement. He said to me, gently, in almost fatherly fashion. “You’re always sniffling, Lily— do blow your nose.” I said unhappily, “We never had handkerchiefs at the orphanage.” He taught me not to say, “Pardon?” when I failed to hear what had been said. “Just say, ‘What?’ I know it sounds rude but it’s correct.” He taught me to rise when an older woman entered the room, to remain seated and relaxed when a man approached the table to chat with us. And I took Major Gillam’s words and was grateful because he was so kind.
He spoke to me about my clothes. We had been at The Mars perhaps three times when he began. “Lily, what I’m going to say to you may offend you but it isn’t meant to. You really must change some of your clothes and I’m going to help you.” I thought, in sudden dismay, oh, they haven’t been as pretty as I thought!
“You see, you are my showcase,” he explained. “You are the public representative of the John Graham Company, so you must be weU dressed so that our customers will assume that we have a profitable business. You do understand, don’t you?”
I said, not altogether understanding, “Oh, yes, certainly.”
“Good,” he said. “Please don’t think there is anything behind this. I am going to send you to my tailor to make you a new coat. That will be the first thing.” I looked up, startled, and he added hurriedly, “Now remember, you have no obligation to me whatsoever. I consider this simply a matter of sound business on my part.”
I was not really startled. It was impossible for me to attribute evil intent to Major Gillam. I thought, only, isn’t it amazing that a man of such aristocratic bearing,, such charm and breeding would pay any attention to Lily Shell, would even wish to talk to a girl like me who is so poor and uneducated and knows so little about anything. And I thought, isn’t it wonderful that I’m pretty. This is the greatest gift I ever received, that I have become pretty.
I went to his tailor and chose a lovely dark red coat with a black velvet collar. “Beautiful,” he said, approvingly. “Now you won’t drip over everything.” I laughed. “Now,” he said, “you need a new hat. I don’t think the one you wear is right for you. And your need shoes and a handbag and gloves to go with it.”
Then: “Don’t you think your hands are rather rough? I know young women who use glycerine and rose water every night on their hands. 1 will get you some.” He told me about the care of my nails. I had never had a manicure. He bought me a manicure set.
He said, “Why don’t you go to a hairdresser and have your hair done?” I was hurt. “Don’t you like it the way it is?” He replied, “It is very nice—but I think a hairdresser might find a way to do you more justice.”
Who could withstand that?
I began to learn a little about Major Gillam. He had won his D.S.O. at Gallipoli, but was reticent about his exploit. “Oh, some action I saw,” he would say, dismissing it. He was a bachelor, about forty-two—twenty-five years older than I. He was born in Birmingham. Before the war he had been interested in writing and the theater, had been one of the original members of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and acted briefly with Cedric Hardwicke, Melville Cooper, and others who were to make names for themselves. Because his family frowned on a stage career he joined H. M. Tennant & Sons, iron and steel manufacturers. He Jiad come, as I was to realize, from a gentle, middle-class family, but knew his way about all strata of society. I could have had no more knowledgeable and devoted tutor.
I, in turn, was tremendously eager to learn, to know good manners, to correct what were not only errors in pronunciation but a Cockney flavor to my speech. I had the orphanage, at least, to thank for taking me off the streets from which 1 would have emerged speaking pure Cockney. The more I was with Major Gillam the more conscious I became of my speech. I told him everything about myself. I was ashamed of my lowly beginnings, of the orphanage, of the East End, but 1 trusted him. It was as though he had decided to make me his protege, to mold me into a proper young lady whom he could display as his representative or take to dinner at The Mars without fear that she would embarrass him.
One night when we worked late he said, “I have to go to a regimental dinner tonight, Lily. Will you come to my flat while I change?”
I accompanied him. A uniformed doorman, tipping his hat, opened the lift for us; and as we went up I thought, how grand to live in a building with a lift, not stone stairs to climb, where you don’t always come upon poor, careworn women with shopping baskets and dirty, tired men in caps.
Major Gillam opened the door with his key and ushered me into a cozy apartment. There were two rooms —a small, pleasant sitting room with deep, black leather chairs and off it a bedroom and bath.
“I don’t have a kitchen,” he said, “but I can have food sent in.”
I sank into one of the leather chairs. Would I care for a drink? I shook my head. Liquor had no appeal for me: only food. As if reading my mind he said, “You must have something to eat.” He rang and when a boy appeared he sent out for biscuits and a bottle of ginger beer. “Do the biscuits have rys’ns in them?” I asked. He laughed. “Yes, but you’d do better if you pronounced it raisins.” I thought, / have been saying ry’sns all my life. How much I have to learn!
Then he poured himself a Scotch and soda and we relaxed, he with his drink, I with my tray of food and ginger beer. He told me more about himself. His heart really wasn’t in iron and steel, nor even in fancy goods. He wanted to write. He spent hours in the reading room of the British Museum studying military history and antiquities, and sending articles about them to the newspapers. He felt concerned because the John Graham Company was not doing as well as he had hoped. An older sister, quite rich, was financing him and he hoped not to disappoint her. He showed me a photograph taken when he came out of Buckingham Palace with his D.S.O. She was on his arm and posed there, proudly. He spoke of her with affection and, I thought, a note of apprehension. But he was confident business would soon improve. He had great faith in our fancy-goods department. With Easter coming, he was certain I would sell every item in stock. “I’ll try,” I said. “Oh, I will.”
He came over and kissed me. He was very sweet, very tender. He kissed me again, ardently, and I responded— I was completely carried away. Anything might have happened. But Major Gillam rose abruptly. “I must bathe and dress now,” he said. And he left me.
I didn’t think it was wrong for me to be in his flat, or for him to kiss me. I was on my own, answerable to no one but myself.
When he emerged from his room later, attired in full regimental dress, I gasped. He carried a sword and his chest gleamed with ribbons and medals. He cut such a handsome figure! He said, “We shall have to leave now.”
Suddenly I didn’t want to go. “Can I stay for a little while? I don’t feel like going right away.”
He said, with surprise, “Of course. Make yourself at home.” He looked about. “Now, you have these biscuits, you have the ginger beer—is there anything else you’d like?”
I said, “No, thank you. It’s just such a cozy flat. I’d love to stay a little longer.”
I saw him to the door. He stood for a moment looking at me, a slow smile playing about his lips. “You’re a very naive girl, Lily.” He kissed me and was gone.
Nibbling at my biscuits, I wandered about the room, touching his pipe rack, looking at the photographs on the wall. One, colored, was charming; it was obviously my employer at the age of two or three, attired in a blue and white sailor suit, with golden curls down to his shoulders, a skipping rope in his hand. What an elegant little boy he had been! I tried one easy chair, then the other. I peeped into his bedroom: on the dresser were a man’s toilet accessories—razor, after-shave lotion, talc. I sniffed the lotion, and tried the talc on my cheek. I sauntered about and peered into the bathroom. It was palatial, with blue tile floor and walls. The tub was enormous, of gleaming white porcelain: a new cake of bath soap lay in the rectangular wire tray and nearby, a long wooden brush to reach the small of your back. I’d never used anything like that.
I thought of the ancient, spidery tub in my boarding house, and the impulse was irresistible. I took a bath. I undressed and got into the deep tub and luxuriated there for neariy an hour, in the fragrant suds, the scent of pine about them, and 1 thought of the antiseptic soap at the orphanage, the pungent, eye-stinging soap of the laundress with whom we had boarded…
Then I dressed, put everything aright, and went home.
Major Gillam, as an eligible bachelor, attended two and three dinner parties and social affairs a week. Often I accompanied him home from the office, and while he bathed and dressed I munched on biscuits and ginger beer and read his magazines. Then, after he left, I took my bath. I didn’t mind Major Gillam going off in the evening to his club. It was so pleasant, so luxurious to have the freedom of his flat: I admired Major Gillam, I enjoyed working for him. This was all so much more than I had ever hoped.
Sometimes, lying in the warm, scented water, dreamily massaging the small of my back with the long brush, I toyed with the idea: how would I like to be Mrs. John Graham Gillam?—and then I pushed the idea out of my mind. He was so much older; and why should he want to marry Lily Shell? Now and then, in the office, he might say impulsively, “You’re so beautiful” and if no one was looking, steal a quick kiss. Once he had added, half-teasmgly, “I wish I could marry you but I owe my sister so much.” I did not believe he meant it. He could not mean it. Major Gillam was a confirmed bachelor. I was his protege: he found me pretty and amusing and eager to learn and terribly grateful. His protege, that was all.
Published as Beloved Infidel by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1958).