ONE hour to closing time in the X and Y Stores.
Here, in the new Oriental Department, the air is heavy
and enervating—pungent with odours of Eastern woodwork,
laden with the perfumed dust from piles of rich Eastern fabrics and
warmed with the fumes of incense in metal boxes and the vapour
from quaint little coloured lamps. Especially oppressive and ex-
hausting in the dimly-lit corner where the pale-haired assistant
half leans against the Indian screen and languidly sweeps the
“new line” of Persian glass with his long peacock feather brush.
“Wike up, Alf,” whispers a passing confrére, “yer’ ‘arf
asleep, and guvnor’s piping yer.”
The friendly warning was needed.
It is the voice of the superintendent—short and sharp, like
the crack of a whip.
“Oh, yes, madam,” says Mr Alf Nasher, rousing himself
from his languorous reverie. ‘Quite a new line. The ’ole of
these trays of glorss was purchased by aar trav’lers in the market
place of Bagdad. Nothing like it ever reached London before.
Sim’lar to Bo’emian, but the Bo’emians can’t produce these exqui-
site opal tints, nor blow the threads so fragile-like. Perfect spider’s
web! Make a very beautiful wedding present, that tall pair, I
should say, madam, or the small ones, or one alone, madam.”
But, while he cries his wares in orthodox fashion, keeping
his almost colourless grey eyes fixed upon the lady’s animated
face, the pupils dilate until nearly the whole iris is swallowed by
their net shade; then slowly contract, become smaller and
smaller until they are as black spots in their vague surroundings,
and the young man begins to dream.
All this afternoon, since his indigestible, salt-beef dinner, he
has been assailed by the press and throng of his trance-world,
finding vehicles for brain-wanderings in every detail of his work,
in despite of his struggles to keep his feet on the solid ground of
The lady customers—and in this department nearly all the
customers are of the softer sex—at once enervate and torment by
drawing him, blindfold, into the realm of luminous shadows and
diffused and rose-coloured light. Blondes and brunettes—the
young specimens fresh, innocent, adorable in their gauche sim-
plicity; the maturer types in the flush and fire of high-toned and
dragon-fly loveliness; the faint carmine tints of old poe era lips
like geranium petals, curls like spun gold; the thick, white skins
and heavy, black tresses, long lashes, full eyelids veiling the mys-
tery of amorous Sphinxes; diffident Madonnas; flashing Cleo-
patras; all moulds, all forms of feminine grace or seductiveness—
all troubling, tormenting him, since the clogging mid-day meal, all
furnishing irresistible material for dreams.
Suppose that he were rich, pepe ey wealthy, rich
enough to buy up the X and Y, stock, lot and barrel, if the fancy
moved him, from the roof tree and Toys No. 1 to the cellars and
the overflow of sewing-machines from No. 20.
Ransacking departments, building them in with invoiceless
goods, could he not win them—buy them all? Why shy at the
word? Are they not all of them to be bought if you are rich
enough to pay the price? Who among them would long with-
stand the virtue-sapping seduction of the Jewellery Department—
all his, from the tiaras on sale or return from the great Midland
houses, to the little “merry-thought” brooches (9 carat, one split
pearl, 18s. 9d.), bought net and stocked by the gross? He could
gauge the power of the Jewellery Department by those merry-
thoughts. For had he not given one to Sybil Cartwright, of the
middle counter of “Gloves, Hose and Underwear”?
A brown-haired, moon-faced maid—Sybil—with hair swept
over egg-shell ears, and almond eyes, darkly lustrous as a summer’s
night on the banks of the Karun, and the haughty insouciance
which can laugh at the wooing of a rosetted shop-walker or a
ground-floor desk clerk, not to mention an undecorated assistant!
But to be bought, no doubt, like the countesses and duchesses
whose fur-clad menials fill the “out” benches of the hall. “What
are in all those saddle-bag sacks which I see the warehouse men
carrying all day long into the Deposit Account Office?” asks
Sybil disdainfully. Gold, young lidy, my gold. Same as what
I’ve bought the ole Stores with.”
“Praad” she might be, and cold too, and dignified in de-
meanour; but he could set her dancing for his pleasure in a mar-
vellous, secret flat, obtained through the X and Y House Agency,
and furnished “remorseless” out of this very department, within
a month—yes, dancing before him, dressed like some Nautch girl,
In the New Oriental Department
and all jingling and jangling with diamonds, rubies and sapphires,
as she twisted and squirmed about to the muffled music of an
X and Y “ten clay band,” hidden away in the next room.
“Praad, may be! but mine at last!”
Yet how restricted the power, how feeble the effect, of the
vastest treasure here in England, in these prosaic, convention-
ruled days! But to have. the wealth and the power, too: to be an
Eastern potentate, absolute, uncontrolled lord of all the land! Ah,
Sultan and King! sensual, merciless, if you like, but splendid even
in his depravement; capable of fine flashes of magnanimity to
illumine the dark background of his soul’s demoralization. ‘Lord
of all this, my humming, bustling market-place, my walled city
and my palace all in one—all these busy clerks and assistants my
troops, bearers and servants; the liftmen my bronzed captains;
the frock-coated commissionaires my corpulent, white-faced body-
guard, safe and harmless guardians of the new block of women’s
sleeping accommodation, which I herewith appropriate as my sera-
glio, and over which I set them on guard.” …
And now is seen one of those terrible occurrences, frightful
examples of a despot’s tyranny, which have made this young
monarch at once famous and execrable in Oriental history.
“Well, let the historians talk! What must be, must be. Kis-
met. I have spoken.”
Throwing himself down on the finest of the embroidered
divans, while ready hands bring forward the huge hookah—that
reat unsaleable thing that has stood by the A desk of the
obacco Department for the last three years—he summons the
now trembling secretary, his grand vizier; issues his brief but
awful commands; and, wrapping himself in wreaths of fragrant
smoke, calmly awaits their fulfilment.
Crunch! clink, clank! The sounds of bolts and bars; then
the rumble of the iron fireproof doors, as they fall in their sockets
throughout the great building, leaving only the little wickets
wee from floor to floor, between department and department.
What does it mean? Closing at half after five! Fire? What
Alas, the panic-stricken cries, the shrieks of women, the
groans of men, too well indicate a premonition of the horrible
truth. It is nothing more nor less than one of the Sultan’s gigantic
raids for the re-stocking of his harem.
“All out! All out! All men and boys,
outside!” the unflinch-
ing guards are already roaring on the staircases, and husbands are
being torn from wives, brothers from sisters, on every landing.
A shriek and an oath. The astrakan toque has fallen from the
head of a tall girl—a well-known customer—her hair is half down,
and she is struggling madly to retain the hand of a tall guards-
man, probably her betrothed. Quick as life, the guardsman
snatches from the wall one of those huge Afghan knives, heavy
as a hatchet, sharp as a razor, and clears a space all round him.
In a moment he is overpowered and hurled back through the little
wicket. Killed? Who shall say? He has resisted the Sultan’s
command. Death were a light punishment. “Besides, it ain’t so
easy to see through the ’ooker smoke.”
“All out! All out! All females over the age of
outside!” roar the guards. The men are all gone. It is the turn
of the agonized mothers and aunts and elderly sisters. Oh,
lamentable scene! Oh, pitiful wailings! The most valuable
parcels thrown away in anguish, the floors littered with mono-
grammed purses, muffs, fur capes, powder boxes, card cases, hair-
pins, and what not; a screaming and raving and sobbing and gasp-
ing which might melt a granite rock to tears, as the ensnared
matrons and maids rush to and fro, beating against their prison
bars like a flock of trapped doves. In a voice broken with emotion
and with humble deprecating obeisance, the Secretary-Vizier
a that some daughters of shareholders may be set at
liberty. But he laughs cruelly.
“That new block of buildings must be filled. I have
In the midst of the uproar a stout, middle-aged dame, over-
looked by the Janissaries, appeals to him for mercy. With hideous
mockery he bids her depart.
Her prayer is in truth on behalf of her nieces—two bright’
girls from Hastings, her brother’s pride and joy, on a New Year’s
visit to their aunt at Earl’s Court—but he affects to misunderstand,
mischievously assumes that she is pleading for her own freedom,
and she is hustled from his sight.
“Marshal them all through the Grocery and Candles,” he
In the New Oriental Department
commands. “Then march them before me to their quarters. Give
them food. If necessary drug them all. To-morrow we will en-
large the meshes of our royal net and let many fish pass through.
To-night I am too weary to pick and choose. “I have spoken.”
But what is this? A slim and plainly-dressed girl forces
her way through the agonized throng and throws herself at his
feet. It is Sybil, from counter 5 Ladies’ Hose, etc. Crouched
down like a spaniel before the divan, her nice brown hair trembling
on the back of her neck, upturned towards him, three times she
touches the dusty matting with her white forehead, then raises her
tear-stained eyes to his, and speaks.
“Oh, great Master and King! Do not do this thing. Turn
your thoughts away from this monstrous wickedness. For my
sake let them off. For the sake of a poor girl, open the doors and
let them go. Don’t go and do anything so mean and low as this.”
“For your sake, girl? And what is the
ransom you offer?
Body and soul were too small a price for thwarting a king’s fancy.”
“No ransom, O King, if they might pay it, but a free gift.
I have always loved you”; and now the lovely girl’s pale face is
suffused with blushes.
“Then rise” he cries, in clarion tones, himself springing to
his full height; “and stand here beside me, my empress and my
queen. Open all doors. Let the mob loose. Poor frightened
slaves! your master needs ye not.”
And with a superb gesture of dismissal he flings wide his
Down they all go—‘“the new line”—tray upon tray—
Bagdad’s glory, the “fragile-like” novelties of the season, shivered
into thousands of tinkling fragments—and, as he kneels amidst
the ruin he has wrought, the merciless voice of the Superintendent
hisses in his ear.
“Secretary’s Office. Explain it as best you can. ’Ope for
nothing from me. I’m sick and tired of you.”
W. B. MAXWELL
Maxwell, W. B. “In the New Oriental Department.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 2, 1905, pp. 9-13. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2022. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022, https://1890s.ca/vv2-maxwell-oriental