The Romance of a Shop - Amy Levy - ebook

The Romance of a Shop written by Amy Levy was a British essayist, poet, and novelist best remembered for her literary gifts. This book was published in 1888. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.

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The Romance of a Shop


Amy Levy

Table of Contents



























Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel and lower the proud;

Turn thy wild wheel through sunshine, storm, and cloud;

Thy wheel and thee we neither love nor hate.


There stood on Campden Hill a large, dun-coloured house, enclosed by a walled-in garden of several acres in extent. It belonged to no particular order of architecture, and was more suggestive of comfort than of splendour, with its great windows, and rambling, nondescript proportions. On one side, built out from the house itself, was a big glass structure, originally designed for a conservatory. On the April morning of which I write, the whole place wore a dejected and dismantled appearance; while in the windows and on the outer wall of the garden were fixed black and white posters, announcing a sale of effects to take place on that day week.

The air of desolation which hung about the house had communicated itself in some vague manner to the garden, where the trees were bright with blossom, or misty with the tender green of the young leaves. Perhaps the effect of sadness was produced, or at least heightened, by the pathetic figure that paced slowly up and down the gravel path immediately before the house; the figure of a young woman, slight, not tall, bare-headed, and clothed in deep mourning.

She paused at last in her walk, and stood a moment in a listening attitude, her face uplifted to the sky.

Gertrude Lorimer was not a beautiful woman, and such good looks as she possessed varied from day to day, almost from hour to hour; but a certain air of character and distinction clung to her through all her varying moods, and redeemed her from a possible charge of plainness.

She had an arching, unfashionable forehead, like those of Lionardo da Vinci's women, short-sighted eyes, and an expressive month and chin. As she stood in the full light of the spring sunshine, her face pale and worn with recent sorrow, she looked, perhaps, older than her twenty-three years.

Pushing back from her forehead the hair, which, though not cut into a "fringe," had a tendency to stray about her face, and passing her hand across her eyes, with a movement expressive of mingled anxiety and resolve, she walked quickly to the door of the conservatory, opened it, and went inside.

The interior of the great glass structure would have presented a surprise to the stranger expectant of palms and orchids. It was fitted up as a photographer's studio.

Several cameras, each of a different size, stood about the room. In one corner was a great screen of white-painted canvas; there were blinds to the roof adapted for admitting or excluding the light; and paste-pots, bottles, printing-frames, photographs in various stages of finish—a nondescript heap of professional litter—were scattered about the place from end to end.

Standing among these properties was a young girl of about twenty years of age; fair, slight, upright as a dart, with a glance at once alert and serene.

The two young creatures in their black dresses advanced to each other, then stood a moment, clinging to one another in silence.

It was the first time that either had been in the studio since the day when their unforeseen calamity had overtaken them; a calamity which seemed to them so mysterious, so unnatural, so past all belief, and yet which was common-place enough—a sudden loss of fortune, immediately followed by the sudden death of the father, crushed by the cruel blow which had fallen on him.

"Lucy," said the elder girl at last, "is it only a fortnight ago?"

"I don't know," answered Lucy, looking round the room, whose familiar details stared at her with a hideous unfamiliarity; "I don't know if it is a hundred years or yesterday since I put that portrait of Phyllis in the printing-frame! Have you told Phyllis?"

"No, but I wish to do so at once; and Fanny. But here they come."

Two other black-gowned figures entered by the door which led from the house, and helped to form a sad little group in the middle of the room.

Frances Lorimer, the eldest of them all, and half-sister to the other three, was a stout, fair woman of thirty, presenting somewhat the appearance of a large and superannuated baby. She had a big face, with small, meaningless features, and faint, surprised-looking eyebrows. Her complexion had once been charmingly pink and white, but the tints had hardened, and a coarse red colour clung to the wide cheeks. At the present moment, her little, light eyes red with weeping, her eyebrows arched higher than ever, she looked the picture of impotent distress. She had come in, hand in hand with Phyllis, the youngest, tallest, and prettiest of the sisters; a slender, delicate-looking creature of seventeen, who had outgrown her strength; the spoiled child of the family by virtue of her youth, her weakness, and her personal charms.

Gertrude was the first to speak.

"Now that we are all together," she said, "it is a good opportunity for talking over our plans. There are a great many things to be considered, as you know. Phyllis, you had better not stand."

Phyllis cast her long, supple frame into the lounge which was regarded as her special property, and Fanny sat down on a chair, wiping her eyes with her black-bordered pocket-handkerchief. Gertrude put her hands behind her and leaned her head against the wall.

Phyllis's wide, grey eyes, with their half-wistful, half-humorous expression, glanced slowly from one to the other.

"Now that we are all grouped," she said, "there is nothing left but for Lucy to focus us."

It was a very small joke indeed, but they all laughed, even Fanny. No one had laughed for a fortnight, and at this reassertion of youth and health their spirits rose with unexpected rapidity.

"Now, Gertrude, unfold your plans," said Lucy, in her clear tones and with her air of calm resolve.

Gertrude played nervously with a copy of the British Journal of Photography which she held, and began to speak with hesitation, almost with apology, as one who deprecates any undue assumption of authority.

"You know that Mr. Grimshaw, our father's lawyer, was here last night," she said; "and that he and I had a long talk together about business. (He was sorry you were too ill to come down, Fanny.) He told me all about our affairs. We are quite, quite poor. When everything is settled, when the furniture is sold, he thinks there will be about £500 among us, perhaps more, perhaps less."

Fanny's thin, feminine tones broke in on her sister's words—

"There is my £50 a-year that my mama left me; I am sure you are all welcome to that."

"Yes, dear, yes," said Lucy, patting her shoulder; while Gertrude bit her lip and went on—

"We cannot live for long on £500, as you must know. We must work. People have been very kind. Uncle Sebastian has telegraphed for two of us to go out to India; Mrs. Devonshire offers another two of us a home for as long as we like. But I think we would all rather not accept these kind offers?"

"Of course not!" cried Lucy and Phyllis in chorus, while Fanny maintained a meek, consenting silence.

"The question remains," continued the speaker; "what can we do? There is teaching, of course. We might find places as governesses; but we should be at a great disadvantage without certificates or training of any sort. And we should be separated."

"Oh, Gertrude," cried Fanny, "you might write! You write so beautifully! I am sure you could make your fortune at it."

Gertrude's face flushed, but she controlled all other signs of the irritation which poor hapless Fan was so wont to excite in her.

"I have thought about that, Fanny," she said; "but I cannot afford to wait and hammer away at the publishers' doors with a crowd of people more experienced and better trained than myself. No, I have another plan to propose to you all. There is one thing, at least, that we can all do."

"We can all make photographs, except Fan," said Phyllis, in a doubtful voice.

"Exactly!" cried Gertrude, growing excited, and walking across to the middle of the room; "we can make photographs! We have had this studio, with every proper arrangement for light and other things, so that we are not mere amateurs. Why not turn to account the only thing we can do, and start as professional photographers? We should all keep together. It would be a risk, but if we failed we should be very little worse off than before. I know what Lucy thinks of it, already. What have you others to say to it?"

"Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?" cried Fanny, aghast.

"Fanny, you are behind the age," said Lucy, hastily. "Don't you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?"

"I think it a perfectly splendid idea," cried Phyllis, sitting up; "we shall be like that good young man in Le Nabab."

"Indeed, I hope we shall not be like André," said Gertrude, sitting down by Phyllis on the couch and putting her arm round her, "especially as none of us are likely to write successful tragedies by way of compensation."

"You two people are getting frivolous," remarked Lucy, severely, "and there are so many things to consider."

"First of all," answered Gertrude, "I want to convince Fanny. Think of all the dull little ways by which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business—that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women's work is dreadfully lacking."

"We have thought out a good many of the details," went on Lucy, who was possessed of less imagination than her sister, but had a clearer perception of what arguments would best appeal to Fanny's understanding. "It would not absorb all our capital, we have so many properties already. We thought of buying some nice little business, such as are advertised every week in The British Journal. But of course we should do nothing rashly, nor without consulting Mr. Grimshaw."

"Not for his advice," put in Gertrude, "but to arrange any transaction for us."

"Gertrude and I," went on Lucy, "would do the work, and you, Fanny, if you would, should be our housekeeper."

"And I," cried Phyllis, her great eyes shining, "I would walk up and down outside, like that man in the High Street, who tells me every day what a beautiful picture I should make!"

"Our photographs would be so good and our manners so charming that our fame would travel from one end of the earth to the other!" added Lucy, with a sudden abandonment of her grave and didactic manner.

"We would have afternoon tea in the studio on Sunday, to which everybody should flock; duchesses, cabinet ministers, and Mr. Irving. We should become the fashion, make colossal fortunes, and ultimately marry dukes!" finished off Gertrude.

Fanny looked up, helpless but unconvinced. The enthusiasm of these young creatures had failed to communicate itself to her. Their outburst of spirits at such a time seemed to her simply shocking.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Living, moving, and having her being well within the vision of three pairs of searching and intensely modern young eyes, poor Fan could permit herself neither these nor any kindred indulgences; but went her way with a vague, inarticulate sense of injury—a round, sentimental peg in the square, scientific hole of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Now, when the little tumult had in some degree subsided, she ventured once more to address the meeting.

That was the worst of Fan; there was no standing up in fair fight and having it out with her; you might as soon fight a feather-bed. Convinced, to all appearances, one moment; the next, she would go back to the very point from which she had started, with that mild but terrible obstinacy of the weak.

"I suppose you know," she said, having once more recourse to the black-bordered pocket-handkerchief, "what every one will think?"

"Every one will be dead against it. We know that, of course," said Lucy, with the calm confidence of untried strength.

Fortunately the discussion was interrupted at this juncture, by the loud voice of the gong announcing luncheon.

Fanny rushed off to bathe her eyes. Gertrude ran upstairs to wash her hands, and the two younger girls lingered together a few moments in the studio.

"I wonder," said Phyllis, with the complete and unconscious cynicism of youth, "why Fan has never married; she has just the sort of qualities that men seem to think desirable in a wife and a mother!"

"Poor Fanny, don't you know?" answered Lucy. "There was a person once, ages ago, but he was poor and had to go away, and Fan would have no one else."

This was Lucy's version of that far away, uninteresting little romance; Fanny's "disappointment," to which the heroine of it was fond of making vaguely pathetic allusion. Fan would have no one else, her sister had said; but perhaps another cause lay at the root of her constancy (and of much feminine constancy besides); but if Lucy did not say no one else would have Fan, Phyllis, who was younger and more merciless, chose to accept the statement in its inverted form; which, by the by, neithershe, nor I, nor you, reader, have authentic grounds for doing.

"Oh, I had heard about that before, naturally," she answered; but further conversation on the subject was cut short by the appearance of Fanny herself, come to summon them to the dining-room, where lunch was set out on the great table.

Old Kettle, the butler, waited on them as usual, and there was nothing in the nature of the viands to bring home to them the fact of their altered circumstances; but it was a dismal meal, crowned with a sorrow's crown of sorrow, the remembrance of happier things. In the vacant place they all seemed to see the dead father, as he had been wont to sit among them; charming, gay, debonnair, the life of the party; delighting no less in the light-hearted sallies of his daughters, than in his own neatly-polished epigrams; a man as brilliant as he had been unsatisfactory; as little able to cope with the hard facts of existence as he had been reckless in attacking them.

"Oh, girls," said Fanny, when the door had finally closed upon Kettle; "Oh, girls, I have been thinking. If only circumstances had been otherwise, if only—things had happened a little differently, I might have had a home to offer you, a home to which you might all have come!"

Overcome by this vision of possibilities, this resuscitation of her dead and buried might-have-been, Miss Lorimer began to sob quietly; and the poor eyes, which she had been at such pains to bathe, overflowed, deluging the streaky expanses of newly-washed cheeks.

"Oh, I can't help it, I can't help it," moaned this shuttlecock of fate, appealing to the stern young judges who sat silent around her; an appeal which, if duly considered, will seem to be even more piteous than the outbreak of emotion of which it was the cause.

Gertrude got up from her chair and went from the room; Phyllis sat staring, with beautiful, unmoved, accustomed eyes; only Lucy, laying a cool hand on her half-sister's burning fingers, spoke words of comfort and of common sense.


And never say "no," when the world says "ay,"

For that is fatal.

E. B. Browning.

When Gertrude reached her room she flung herself on the bed, and lay there passive, with face buried from the light.

She was worn out, poor girl, with the strain of the recent weeks; a period into which a lifetime of events, thoughts, and experience seemed to have crowded themselves.

Action, or thoughts concerned with plans of action, had become for the moment impossible to her.

She realised, with a secret thrill of horror, that the moment had at length come when she must look full in the face the lurking anguish of which none but herself knew the existence; and which, in the press of more immediate miseries, she had hitherto contrived to keep well in the background of her thoughts. Only, she had known dimly throughout, that face it she must, sooner or later; and now her hour had come.

There was some one, bound to her by every tie but the tie of words, who had let the days of her trouble go by and had made no sign; a fair-weather friend, who had fled before the storm.

In these few words are summed up the whole of Gertrude's commonplace story.

Only to natures as proud and as passionate as hers, can the words convey their full meaning.

She was not a woman easily won; not till after long siege had come surrender; but surrender, complete, unquestioning, as only such a woman can give.

Now, her being seemed shaken at the foundations, hurt at the vital roots. As a passionate woman will, she thought: "If it had been his misfortune, not mine!"

In the hall lay a bit of pasteboard with "sincere condolence" inscribed on it; and Gertrude had not failed to learn, from various sources, of the presence at half a dozen balls of the owner of the card, and his projected visit to India.

Gertrude rose from the bed with a choked sound, which was scarcely a cry, in her throat. She had looked her trouble fairly in the eyes; had not, as some women would have done, attempted to save her pride by refusing to acknowledge its existence; but from the depths of her humiliation, had called upon it by its name. Now for ever and ever she turned from it, cast it forth from her; cast forth other things, perhaps, round which it had twined itself; but stood there, at least, a free woman, ready for action.

Thank God for action; for the decree which made her to some extent the arbiter of other destinies, the prop and stay of other lives. For the moment she caught to her breast and held as a friend that weight of responsibility which before had seemed—and how often afterwards was to seem—too heavy and too cruel a burden for her young strength.

"And now," she said, setting her lips, "for a clearance."

Soon the floor was strewn with a heap of papers, chiefly manuscripts, whose dusty and battered air would have suggested to an experienced eye frequent and fruitless visits to the region of Paternoster Row.

Gertrude, kneeling on the floor, bent over them with anxious face, setting some aside, consigning others ruthlessly to the waste-paper basket. One, larger and more travel-worn than the rest, she held some time in her hand, as though weighing it in the balance. It was labelled: Charlotte Corday; a tragedy in five acts; and for a time its fate seemed uncertain; but it found its way ultimately to the basket.

A smart tap at the door roused Gertrude from her somewhat melancholy occupation.

"Come in!" she cried, pushing back the straying locks from the ample arch of her forehead, but retaining her seat among the manuscripts.

The handle turned briskly, and a blooming young woman, dressed in the height of fashion, entered the room.

"My dear Gertrude, what's this? Rachel weeping among her children?"

She spoke in high tones, but with an exaggeration of buoyancy which bespoke nervousness. When last these friends had met, it had been in the chamber of death itself; it was a little difficult, after that solemn moment, to renew the every-day relations of life without shock or jar.

"Come in, Conny, and if you must quote the Bible, don't misquote it."

Constance Devonshire, heedless of her magnificent attire, cast herself down by the side of her friend, and put her arms caressingly round her. Her quick blue eye fell upon the basket with its overflowing papers.

"Gerty, what is the meaning of this massacre of the innocents?"

"'Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher,' since you seem bent on Scriptural allusion, Conny."

"But, Gerty, all your tales and things! I should have thought"—she blushed as she made the suggestion—"that you might have sold them. And Charlotte Corday, too!"

"Poor Charlotte, she has been to market so often that I cannot bear the sight of her; and now I have given her her quietus as the Republic gave it to her original. As for the other victims, they are not worth a tear, and we will not discuss them."

She gathered up the remaining manuscripts, and put them in a drawer; then, turning to her friend with a smile, demanded from her an account of herself.

Miss Devonshire's presence, alien as it was to her present mood, acted with a stimulating effect on Gertrude. To Conny she knew herself to be a very tower of strength; and such knowledge is apt to make us strong, at least for the time being.

"Oh, there's nothing new about me!" answered Conny, wrinkling her handsome, discontented face. "Gerty, why won't you come to us, you and Lucy, and let the others go to India?"

Gertrude laughed at this summary disposal of the family.

"Of course I knew you wouldn't come," said Conny, in an injured voice; "but, seriously, Gerty, what are you going to do?"

In a few words Gertrude sketched the plan which she had propounded to her sisters that morning.

"I don't believe it is possible," said Miss Devonshire, with great promptness; "but it sounds very nice," she added with a sigh, and thought, perhaps, of her own prosperous boredom.

The bell rang for tea, and Gertrude began brushing her hair. Constance endeavoured to seize the brush from her hands.

"You are not coming down, my dear, indeed you are not! You are going to lie down, while I go and fetch your tea."

"I had much rather not, Conny. I am quite well."

"You look as pale as a ghost. But you always have your own way. By the by, Fred is downstairs; he walked over with me from Queen's Gate. He's the only person who is decently civil in the house, just at present."

Tea had been carried into the studio, where the two girls found the rest of the party assembled. Fan, with an air of elegance, as though conscious of performing an essentially womanly function, and with much action of the little finger, was engaged in pouring out tea. In the middle of the room stood a group of three people: Lucy, Phyllis, and Fred Devonshire, a tall, heavy young man, elaborately and correctly dressed, with a fatuous, good-natured, pink and white face.

"Oh, come now, Miss Lucy," he was heard to say, as Gertrude entered with his sister; "that really is too much for one to swallow!"

"He won't believe it!" cried Phyllis, clasping her hands, and turning her charming face to the new-comers; "it's quite true, isn't it, Gerty?"

"Have you been telling tales out of school?"

"Lucy and I have been explaining the plan to Fred, and he won't believe it."

Gertrude felt a little vexed at this lack of reticence on their part; but then, she reflected, if the plan was to be carried out, it could remain no secret, especially to the Devonshires. Assured that there really was some truth in what he had been told, Fred relapsed into an amazed silence, broken by an occasional chuckle, which he hastened, each time, to subdue, considering it out of place in a house of mourning.

He had long regarded the Lorimer girls as quite the most astonishing productions of the age, but this last freak of theirs, as he called it, fairly took away his breath. He was a soft-hearted youth, moreover, and the pathetic aspect of the case presented itself to him with great force in the intervals of his amusement.

Constance had brought a note from her mother, and having delivered it, and had tea, she rose to go. Fred remained lost in abstraction, muttering, "By Jove!" below his breath at intervals, the chuckling having subsided.

"Come on, Fred!" cried his sister.

He sprang to his feet.

"Are you slowly recovering from the shock we have given you?" asked Lucy, demurely, as she held out her hand.

"Miss Lucy," he said, solemnly, looking at her with all his foolish eyes, "I'll come every day of the week to be photographed, if I may, and so shall all the fellows at our office!"

He was a little hurt and disconcerted, though he joined in the laugh himself, when every one burst out laughing; even Lucy, to whom he had addressed himself as the least puzzling and most reliable of the Miss Lorimers.

Gertrude walked down the drive with the brother and sister, a colourless, dusky, wind-blown figure beside their radiant smartness, and let them out herself at the big gate. Here she lingered a moment, while the wind lifted her hair, and fanned her face, bringing a faint tinge of red to its paleness.

Phyllis and Lucy opened the door of the studio which led to the garden, and stood there arm-in-arm, soothed no less than Gertrude by the chill sweetness of the April afternoon. The sound of carriage wheels roused them from the reverie into which both of them had fallen, and in another moment a brougham, drawn by two horses, was seen to round the curve of the drive and make its way to the house.

The two girls retreated rapidly, shutting the door behind them.

"Great heavens, Aunt Caroline!" said Lucy, in dismay.

"She must have passed Gertrude at the gate; Fanny, do you hear who has come?"

"Kettle must take the tea into the drawing-room," said Fanny, in some agitation. "You know Mrs. Pratt does not like the studio."

Phyllis was peeping through the panes of the door, which afforded a view of the entrance of the house.

"She is getting out now; the footman has opened the carriage door, and Kettle is on the steps. Oh, Lucy, if Aunt Caroline had been a horse, what a hard mouth she would have had!"

In another moment a great swish of garments and the sound of a metallic voice were heard in the drawing-room, which adjoined the conservatory; and Kettle, appearing at the entrance which divided the two rooms, announced lugubriously: "Mrs. Septimus Pratt!"

A tall, angular woman, heavily draped in the crispest, most aggressive of mourning garments, was sitting upright on a sofa when the girls entered the drawing-room. She was a handsome person of her age, notwithstanding a slightly equine cast of countenance, and the absence of anything worthy the adjectives graceful or sympathique from her individuality.

Mrs. Septimus Pratt belonged to that mischievous class of the community whose will and energy are very far ahead of their intellect and perceptions. She had a vulgar soul and a narrow mind, and unbounded confidence in her own judgments; but she was not bad-hearted, and was animated, at the present moment, by a sincere desire to benefit her nieces.

"How do you do, girls?" she said, speaking in that loud, authoritative key which many benevolent persons of her sex think right to employ when visiting their poorer neighbours. "Yes, please, Fanny, a cup of tea and some bread-and-butter. Cake? No, thank you. I didn't expect to find cake!"

This last sentence, uttered with a sort of ponderous archness, as though to take off the edge of the implied rebuke, was received in unsmiling silence; even Fanny choking down in time a protest which rose to her lips.

With a sinking of the heart, Lucy heard the handle of the door turn, and saw Gertrude enter, pale, severe, and distant.

"How do you do, Gerty?" cried Aunt Caroline, "though this is not our first meeting. How came you to be standing at the gate, without your hat, and in that shabby gown?"

For Gertrude happened to be wearing an old black dress, having taken off the new mourning garment before clearing out the dusty papers.

"I beg your pardon, Aunt Caroline?"

The opposition between these two women may be said to have dated from the cradle of one of them.

"You ought to know at your age, Gertrude," went on Mrs. Pratt, "that now, of all times, you must be careful in your conduct; and among other things, you can none of you afford to be seen looking shabby."

Mrs. Septimus spoke, it must be owned, with considerable unction. She really meant well by her nieces, as I have said before, but at the same time she was very human; and that circumstances should, as she imagined, have restored to her the right of speaking authoritatively to those independent maidens, was a chance not to be despised. Gertrude, once discussing her, had said that she was a person without respect, and, indeed, a reverence for humanity, as such, could not be reckoned among her virtues.

There was a pause after her last remark, and then, to the surprise and consternation of every one, Fanny flung herself into the breach.