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by Ralph Trevor






EVERYONE who shops with discretion, as the publicists say, knows Oxton’s, the most important silk emporium in London. Its wealth of windows in the Kensington High Street provide a colourful magnet for women of all nations who linger there, some of them longingly, admiring the subtle tints of the silks; their irresistible sheen; the glamour and the romance that lies behind each fascinating and tempting display.

Oxton’s have a reputation. It has been built up over scores of years and is rightly proud of its commercial longevity, for there are still folk who have a deep-rooted regard for old-established business. But Oxton’s do not rely on the time factor. Their fame—and fame it undeniably is—has been built on the fact that Oxton’s sell nothing but silk.

No matter what variety of silk you require, they have it at Oxton’s. Whether that silk has been woven in modern, hygienic factories on British machinery by British workgirls in mob cap and overalls with the aid of every device that science can bring to the art, or silk from the bamboo hand-looms of the Chinese village still employing a similar technique to that introduced to China by the Empress Lei-tsu, wife of Huang Ti, “The Yellow Emperor,” in the year 2700 B.C., Oxton’s can show you some exquisite examples.

Old Peter Oxton, who founded the firm more than one hundred and fifty years ago, had left behind him a legacy of personal efficiency that had become a tradition, and to-day the four generations of Oxtons were as meticulously thorough as the Old Man had been; thorough, that is, in that they believed that the handling of silks was a job for experts, and it was well known in the trade that Oxtons’ employees knew their jobs.

Yet there was nothing old-fashioned about Oxton’s to-day. The artistry of the modern shop-designer had given them a glazed frontage which enabled the art of the window-dresser to provide a fairyland of colour both for the casual and the studious observer. Inside the establishment King Efficiency sat on his silken throne, but he was, nevertheless, a monarch to be obeyed.

The emporium opened its doors to the public punctually every morning save Sunday at nine o’clock, which meant that Oxtons’ employees were required to be at their respective counters fifteen minutes before the green-suited commissionaire withdrew the bolts from the main swing-doors and with majestic ritual flung them open.

On this October morning the colour within made a stimulating contrast to the grey aspect without. From eight-thirty onwards the staff emerged from their respective dressing-rooms at the rear of the premises and set to work in the period allotted to them to dress their counters and prepare generally for the business that the day would bring forth.

There was orderliness, method and, where young women are gathered together, an occasional burble of reminiscent chatter. Of their number it would not have been difficult even to the untutored to have picked out Phyllis Varley, who presided, with a junior assistant, over the Chinese counter.

Miss Varley was that type of girl at which even the unpractised observer would unhesitatingly look twice. This does not mean that her beauty relied solely on chemical artifice. It was true that her well-moulded lips were intriguingly rouged and that a pleasant touch of colour stained her cheeks, but there was something infinitely more striking about her, and that was her hair which smouldered rather than flamed, and her eyes which were large, round and intensely blue.

She was tall, but not too tall, and the possessor of a figure that conformed to nearly all dimensions prescribed by those judges of feminine beauty who really ought to know what they talk and write about. Not that personal beauty worried Miss Varley over-much. At twenty-four she had acquired a poise and a well-balanced viewpoint on life that many a woman ten years her senior might reasonably have envied.

She liked her work and when her work at Oxton’s was done, she liked her play which consisted of all those healthy pursuits which have made the modern young women so fascinating an improvement on the generation from which her parents came. She was typical of her age and her period—physically and mentally healthy.

At fifteen she had gone out into the world and her world had been the world of the shops because Phyllis Varley, ever since she could remember, had worshipped at the shrine of colour and beauty. Oxton’s represented to her probably the acme of her search for professional satisfaction.

She had been with the firm for six years and in that time she had mastered a knowledge of the silk trade that might have been found startling in its thoroughness. And Oxton’s appreciated Phyllis Varley; so much so that for the past three years she had been first sales in the Chinese Silk Department, a position which she valued.

Her young assistant, Miss Staines, was not behind the counter when Phyllis Varley arrived. Miss Staines’ first task each morning was to go up to the office on the first floor to collect the invoices so that her senior would be aware whether any order were likely to be arriving and due preparation made for its display either around the counter or in the special Chinese window that Oxton's reserved exclusively for Oriental silks and which again was under the control of Miss Varley.

Fortunately there was little in the way of display to be done on this particular morning and Phyllis Varley paused, for a moment, immediately opposite her counter on the “floor” side contemplating its arrangement and mentally deciding what new scheme she would put into operation for to-morrow.

The rich rainbow “fan” to the left of the counter would give place to a “cascade” of some single colour—always an effective device and one which Miss Varley particularly favoured. Having decided this point Miss Varley walked around her counter to check up on the stock. Behind her were the silk shelves where the rolls of silk were stacked, the whole forming a colour scheme as graduated and as artistic as the spectrum, commencing on the left with the pure white and proceeding through all the colour gradations until at the bottom on the right the rolls of grey and black completed the picture.

Every morning for the past three years she had stood, just as she stood now, facing those narrow rolls of silk and knowing with an instinct born of long practice and custom whether even one roll was out of position. Rarely had she discovered this to be the case, but now she but now she realized that there was something wrong. Two tones of green jarred her artistic nerves. Their cadence of colour was too abrupt which indicated that one roll of silk was missing—a roll that would have softened that harshness and made the shading complete.

Without for one moment debating the reason for the misplaced roll Phyllis Varley went around the counter to make a closer inspection. Her quick eye decided that it had not been inadvertently misplaced; that it was, in fact, missing. Her stock book would tell her immediately whether or not it had been sold and the stock book was kept on a convenient ledge beneath the broad and shining top of the mahogany counter.

The girl turned to the accustomed place but as her fingers instinctively touched the ledger she paused. Her eye had caught something further down . . . towards the floor it was . . . something that made her want to scream . . . an involuntary expression of emotion to which she had never been prone. . . . As it was she felt suddenly cold . . . like a corpse. Her hair felt bristly; the palms of her hands were moist. If she had wanted to scream she felt that she couldn’t, for there was something curiously hypnotic about the sight of a hand protruding unnaturally from between folds of green silk under the well of the counter.

Phyllis Varley continued to stare at that hand for a moment and then, very slowly, she felt herself slipping vertically across the brass edge of the counter.

In that last moment of consciousness the girl had realized who it was lay there; whose wax-like hand projected so grotesquely. A curious gold ring fashioned from twisted serpents was still around the little finger, and that ring as everyone in Oxton’s knew belonged to Nikolas Nolescue, the expert in Oriental silks who had arrived only a month ago.

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