“They’re—I—” she stammered, turning round abruptly. Luckily she was still sheltered behind the counter.
The young man whom she had seen in the street came boldly forward.
“Good morning, Miss Sophia,” said he, hat in hand. “It is a long time since I had the pleasure of seeing you.”
Never had she blushed as she blushed then. She scarcely knew what she was doing as she moved slowly towards her sister’s corner again, the young man following her on the customer’s side of the counter.
She knew that he was a traveller for the most renowned and gigantic of all Manchester wholesale firms—Birkinshaws. But she did not know his name, which was Gerald Scales. He was a rather short but extremely well-proportioned man of thirty, with fair hair, and a distinguished appearance, as became a representative of Birkinshaws. His broad, tight necktie, with an edge of white collar showing above it, was particularly elegant. He had been on the road for Birkinshaws for several years; but Sophia had only seen him once before in her life, when she was a little girl, three years ago. The relations between the travellers of the great firms and their solid, sure clients in small towns were in those days often cordially intimate. The traveller came with the lustre of a historic reputation around him; there was no need to fawn for orders; and the client’s immense and immaculate respectability made him the equal of no matter what ambassador. It was a case of mutual esteem, and of that confidence-generating phenomenon, “an old account.” The tone in which a commercial traveller of middle age would utter the phrase “an old account” revealed in a flash all that was romantic, prim, and stately in mid-Victorian commerce. In the days of Baines, after one of the elaborately engraved advice-circulars had arrived (’Our Mr.------will have the pleasure of waiting upon you on—day next, the—inst.’) John might in certain cases be expected to say, on the morning of—day, ‘Missis, what have ye gotten for supper to-night?’
Mr. Gerald Scales had never been asked to supper; he had never even seen John Baines; but, as the youthful successor of an aged traveller who had had the pleasure of St. Luke’s Square, on behalf of Birkinshaws, since before railways, Mrs. Baines had treated him with a faint agreeable touch of maternal familiarity; and, both her daughters being once in the shop during his visit, she had on that occasion commanded the gawky girls to shake hands with him.
Sophia had never forgotten that glimpse. The young man without a name had lived in her mind, brightly glowing, as the very symbol and incarnation of the masculine and the elegant.