The Christmas Robe: A Roaring Twenties Short Story
Hello! This free short story, “The Christmas Robe,” is my gift to you to thank you for subscribing to my blog and/or newsletter, A SPARKLING VINTAGE LIFE.
Marjorie Corrigan is the heroine of my novel, You’re the Cream in My Coffee. In this short story, while working as a sales clerk at Chicago’s elegant department store, Marshall Field & Company, she mentally escapes the crush of holiday shoppers by daydreaming about her upcoming wedding. She spots the perfect item for her trousseau—a luxurious crimson velvet robe that she simply has to have. But when the robe proves too rich for her pocketbook, she resorts to desperate measures—a move that unleashes startling consequences. I hope this story warms your heart. Merry Christmas!
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Say the word “Christmastime” and most people think of manger scenes and jingle bells, the glow of colored lights and the flutter of angels’ wings. But at the great Marshall Field & Company, Chicago’s premier department store, Christmastime meant all that and more, along with enough crowds, clanging, and clatter to shatter a sales clerk’s nerves. I know this because that clerk was me.
I can’t remember now what the problem was, that early December afternoon back in the ’20s–some shortcoming involving a woolen bed jacket, I believe. As the customer ranted, my brain fogged over. My only thought was that her flushed face made nearly a precise match to the holly berries nestled in the evergreen garland festooning the shelf right behind her head. Normally our supervisor, Mrs. Cross, would step in and smooth things over—no customer would leave her section dissatisfied!—but Ladies’ Nightwear was as hectic as Union Station at rush hour and she was directing traffic over by the emerald silk hostess gowns, clear on the other side of the department.
When the customer had finally stormed off and I had a moment to catch my breath, Mrs. Cross scurried over and blessed me with the assignment of unpacking a fresh shipment of garments in the stockroom. Usually we clerks balked at the banishment of stockroom duty, which meant fewer dollars penciled neatly into our sales ledgers, but this time I leaped at the chance to escape the madness of the sales floor. Between my aching back and burning feet and the hordes of frenzied shoppers eager to commemorate the birth of our Lord with flannel pajamas and satin housecoats, I was desperate for a few moments of peace.
“Hurry, Miss Corrigan,” Mrs. Cross urged in an exaggerated stage-whisper. “It’s the Queen Maries.”
I quickened my step. According to the buyer for Ladies’ Nightwear, the Queen Marie boudoir robe was to be the star in our crown, the centerpiece of our holiday sales strategy, but they’d been delayed at the manufacturer. Getting the darn things steamed, priced, and out onto the sales floor was a matter of utmost urgency, if Ladies’ Nightwear was to make a good showing in the December sales figures next to all the other sections of the store.
“Be sure to tell customers that it’s an exact copy of a style owned by Queen Marie. An exact copy.” The buyer for Ladies’ Nightwear had been breathless in her enthusiasm as she described the robe to the sales staff. I’d rolled my eyes—how exciting could a bathrobe be?—but with the royal moniker attached, it was sure to be an easy sale. Earlier that fall, Queen Marie of Romania had visited Chicago as part of a nationwide tour, and had even stopped at Field’s. Her visit had caused a publicity sensation, and women across the city were still giddy with Queen Marie fever.
Perched on a stepstool in the claustrophobic stockroom, I knew the moment I sliced open the carton that this was no ordinary robe. Fashioned of deep crimson silk velvet, with creamy Belgian lace at the collar and cuffs and the most exquisite tailoring along the yoke, it was flawless.
With care bordering on reverence I lifted the top robe and hugged it to myself. The lace tickled my nose, and the heavy velvet lay smooth and rich in my hands. As I breathed in the scent of luxury, daydreams flickered across my imagination like a Mary Pickford movie. With my wedding coming up, I’d been keeping an eye out for a new robe to add to my trousseau. My mind spooled out a vision of the perfect morning when I’d serve my new husband the fluffiest of pancakes, and hot coffee in a delicate china cup, while swathed head-to-toe in crimson velvet. With admiration shining in his eyes, he’d lift his crystal goblet of freshly squeezed orange juice and say how very lucky he was to have chosen me as his bride. Of course, I didn’t own any china cups, not to mention crystal goblets, but that’s what wedding presents were for, and anyway, the first step was—
“Marjorie, how are you coming with those robes?” Mrs. Cross poked her head around the stockroom curtain, her strident voice shattering my dream. She only used my first name when we were out of earshot of customers.
“Oh, um, fine,” I said, and she retreated. Gently, I slid the first robe onto a hanger and hung it on a wheeled rack, then stood back and admired it full-length. My heart thumped at the beauty of it. I reached deeply into the carton and pulled out the inventory sheet to check the price.
Surely that figure wasn’t right.
I blinked again.
Now my heart thumped for a different reason. I gave a low whistle. The Queen Marie was the most expensive garment Ladies’ Nightwear had ever carried. With a sinking sensation I realized that, even with my employee discount, there would be no way I could ever afford to own such a robe. I sighed. Easy come, easy go. My Beloved would simply have to put up with the sight of me in a boring ordinary bathrobe, pouring his coffee into a ceramic mug. A chipped one, at that.
Swallowing my disappointment, I finished hanging all of the gorgeous garments on the rack and steamed them free of wrinkles. Then I grabbed a pen and a handful of blank tags from a nearby shelf. I filled out the price tags, pinned them to the inside cuffs of the robes, and wheeled the rack out onto the sales floor. Immediately a small band of ladies gathered around, oohing and aahing and brushing eager fingers over the fabric. With a heavy sigh, I turned away to help the next shopper clamoring for my attention.
“My goodness. All this fuss about a bathrobe?” my roommate, Dot, remarked that evening.
“It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen,” I said, “like something Gloria Swanson would wear. I can just picture myself wearing it on our honeymoon.” I described to her my breakfast daydream starring my beloved and his crystal goblet of orange juice.
“. . . as bluebirds and turtledoves sing outside the latticed window of your rose-covered cottage,” Dot quipped with a not-so-subtle note of sarcasm. She peered intently at her fingernails as she painted them with cherry-red lacquer. “If you ask me, that’s an awful lot of clams to shell out for a bathrobe.”
I crossed my arms. “You have no sense of romance.”
She blew a puff of air over her nails. “Look, Marjorie. I’m as romantic as the next girl, but I’m just being honest. I’ve watched you cook breakfast. You’re likely to end up with pancake batter down the front of that gorgeous bathrobe, and toast crumbs in your hair.”
“Boudoir robe,” I muttered, ignoring the accuracy of her prediction.
“Look, doll, you’re better off saving your money and buying a pretty new hat instead.”
“You would say that,” I scoffed. “You work in Millinery.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. But a new cloche or beret would be admired by a lot more people than a bathrobe.”
“Boudoi—oh, never mind.” I heaved a sigh. “It doesn’t matter anyway. There’s no way I could ever afford it.”
But hope came just a couple of weeks later, in the unlikely form of my fellow clerk, Miss Ryan. Much as the public seemed to adore the celestial robes, they didn’t adore the celestial price. We’d only managed to sell a handful, in spite of the Christmas rush.
I remarked as much to Miss Ryan, one afternoon during a rare lull in the action.
“They’re going half-price the day after Christmas,” she said. “I overheard the buyer saying so to Mrs. Cross.”
I fought to remain calm. “Half price? Really?” It would still be an enormous stretch, but with my employee discount, and if we received a holiday bonus . . .
“Sure is,” Miss Ryan said, “and it’s a terrible thing, too. Old Rugged is upset about it. She was counting on those robes making Ladies’ Nightwear look good to the top brass.”
“Oh. That is terrible,” I agreed, trying to sound disappointed. But inside I rejoiced. All I had to do was hold out and buy the robe the day after Christmas, and all would be well. I was so confident in this plan that, in a sudden spurt of generosity, I donated my old blue terrycloth bathrobe to the church Christmas pageant, where it would clothe some shepherd abiding in the field, keeping watch over his flock by night. Meanwhile, while I was between robes, I’d throw an old cardigan over my nightgown and shiver.
But a few days later, disaster struck. Miss Kimbrough, a copywriter from the advertising office, strode through our section, clipboard in hand, hot on the trail of new merchandise to feature in a special sales advertisement. She and Mrs. Cross conversed tête-à-tête, and then I saw Old Rugged make a gesture toward the Queen Maries. My heart sank. Clearly she was recommending that Miss Kimbrough write about them! Miss Kimbrough had an ingenious way with words, and I knew that the minute she applied her special magic to the ad, the robes would fly out the door and there would be none left for me.
When their conversation ended, I waited until Mrs. Cross was out of earshot, then intercepted Miss Kimbrough and pointed out the rack of woolen bed jackets that (as it turned out) itched like the dickens. I tried to talk her into featuring those in her ad instead of the Queen Maries, to no avail. The Queen Marie boudoir robe was featured prominently in that Sunday’s Tribune, and sure enough, wealthy matrons poured into Ladies’ Nightwear to snap them up at full price. Just a few days before Christmas, there were almost none left. Mrs. Cross was ecstatic. I was panicking. I simply had to have one!
So I did the unthinkable. When no one was looking, I took the last remaining Queen Marie in my size, folded it up, and hid it under a tall stack of lounging slacks. Those slacks, by virtue being dyed an unearthly shade of puce, were such slow sellers, I didn’t worry much that my ruse would be discovered.
Hoarding merchandise was strictly against store policy, of course. I could have lost my job for it, if I were caught. And when it came time to pay for the robe and take it home, I’d have to conjure up some excuse for why I still had a Queen Marie in my possession, if they’d supposedly sold out. But I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
On Christmas Eve, Ladies’ Nightwear was a madhouse until around 3 p.m. when, as if responding to some silent universal signal, the customers dwindled, heading home through the snow to their cozy firesides and cheerful family gatherings. We’d sold the last of the Queen Marie robes except, of course, for the one I’d secretly stashed away. I congratulated myself on my wisdom and foresight.
Wearied from the onslaught, but buoyed by the thought of the church Christmas pageant to come that evening, followed by a sound night’s sleep and a Christmas morning that would surely include a diamond ring, I offered to begin sweeping up the debris of the day while Mrs. Cross and Miss Ryan took a well-deserved break. Behind me someone cleared his throat. I turned to see a young workingman, standing hat in hand, a merry sprig of holly tucked into the lapel of his worn coat. I straightened and smiled.
“Hello there. Merry Christmas.”
“And a merry Christmas to you.” He shifted his weight and turned his rough woolen cap over and over in his hands.
“What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to buy a present for my wife.” His face beamed and he stood a little taller. “I’ve come for that Queen Marie robe.”
Squelching my surprise that a workingman would want such a luxurious garment, I said, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. They’re gone.”
“Gone?” Puzzlement clouded his face, as if he didn’t quite grasp the language.
“They’ve been sold,” I said. “All of them. I’m so sorry. But I can suggest a lovely–“
“No,” he blurted with startling conviction. “They can’t be gone.” He stared at the space where the robes had hung, now occupied by a rack of flannel nightgowns covered in a snowflake pattern, the harbinger of our January “Adorable Alpine” theme.
“W-well, yes, I’m afraid they are. But if you’ll just step this way—”
“I can pay for it,” he said. My heart cracked at the earnest look in his eyes. From the pocket of his work pants he pulled out fist after fist of coins and bills, laying them with a great clatter on the glass countertop. “I’ve been working overtime, see, saving every penny. I even sold my old baseball glove. Took a while to get the money, else I would have come sooner. But I can pay for it.“
“I’m sure you can,” I quickly assured him, placing a hand on his rough sleeve. “That’s not the problem. The problem is, we have no more of them left. Zero. Zilch.”
Except for the one hidden under a stack of puce lounging slacks.
No, I said to the Presence who suddenly flooded my conscience. He can’t have it. It’s mine.
The man’s face spoke of desperation. “Will you be getting any more?”
I shook my head. “Not this year, no. But it did prove to be a very popular style, so if you come back next year, perhaps a little earlier, we may have it again, or something quite similar.”
He looked straight at me, eyes glistening. “Next year will be too late.” He wrung the cap in his hands. “She’s . . . she won’t be here.”
“Who won’t be here?”
“My wife. She’s . . . you see, it’s her lungs . . .”
The blood rushed to my head as his meaning became clear. “Oh.“ For once I had no words.
“The doctors say six months, maybe.” He spoke in a rush. “Our place is so drafty, and she fell head over heels for that robe, that day we come in here. She don’t talk of nothing else, and I thought it might, you know, keep her plenty warm in this here world, before . . .” His voice cracked. He swallowed hard, then began sweeping the pile of bills and coins into his large rough hands. “Well, never mind, miss. It ain’t your fault.” He glanced up. “Maybe I’ll take one of them snowflake nightgowns instead,” he said without enthusiasm. “That’ll keep her warm enough, and I won’t go home empty-handed.”
I swallowed hard myself, trying to choke the words back, but they flowed out anyway.
“I just remembered something,” I croaked. “Wait here.” I slipped over to the puce lounging slacks, reached underneath the stack, and returned bearing a treasure, in all its crimson velvet glory.
The very last Queen Marie. My eyesight blurred as I laid it on the counter.
His eyes bulged in amazement. “You–you found one!”
“Yes.” To my astonishment, the words kept flowing. “And I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s going to be half-price day after tomorrow. But I’m going to sell it to you for half-price tonight.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them. But for some reason, stopping them no longer seemed important.
The man’s eyes widened. “Are you sure, miss?”
“I’ve never been surer of anything.” And to my great surprise, it was the truth.
I wrote out the sales receipt for half-price, and took his money. Then I carefully wrapped the robe in tissue and slid it into a gift box, along with a hastily scribbled note. “If you take this to the gift-wrapping department, the girls will wrap it up in pretty paper. Show them this note, and it will be free of charge.”
“Oh, thank you, miss,” he breathed. “You’re an angel.”
“Believe me, I’m not,” I insisted, ashamed at how close I’d come to hoarding it for myself.
He tipped his cap. “A very merry Christmas to you, miss.”
“And to you. And tell your wife–tell her to have a very merry Christmas, too. God bless you.”
“He already has.”
A lump formed in my throat as I watched him walk away with the package under his arm, whistling. I sent up a silent prayer for him and his wife, that maybe God in His mercy would write a different ending to their story, after all.
Then I ripped up the sales receipt and wrote a fresh one for the full price of the robe. I attached the man’s money to it, then pulled my pocketbook from the drawer, opened my wallet, counted out the remainder, and put it with the day’s receipts to be turned in to the cashier at closing time.
As I continued sweeping, I thought of my old blue robe, which suddenly seemed magnificent. Because my Beloved liked blue, which he said brought out the color of my eyes. Because it was easily washed when sprinkled with spilled coffee and toast crumbs. Because it would be worn that night by a shepherd worshiping at a manger, and because the original manger had held a Baby who’d changed everything when He came to save the world. That’s what Christmas was all about. Somehow, in the rush of customers and carolers and crimson velvet, I’d lost the whole point of the story.
Some other bride would be wrapped in velvet that Christmas. And that was all right by me. I already had everything needed to—as the young man put it so eloquently—keep me plenty warm in this here world.
THANK YOU FOR READING! If you’re so inclined, please share your thoughts and reactions with a review on Amazon.com. You’re also free to share the story with others, as long as you keep my name attached to it. And again, merry Christmas! I appreciate you all so much.