He only had eyes for wool

BEFORE ``The Thorn Birds'' or geographic specials on television, Australia and wool and sheepshearing were topics as familiar to me as my grocery list or the bus schedule. The textile industry, strong as a Pilgrim's conscience, was once the backbone and rib cage of New England. And when I was associated with it, long-staple merino wool for worsted fabrics reached Boston after a five-week sea voyage.

I was proud to sit amidst samples of those crinkly fleeces in the agency representing Kent & Sons Ltd., the most prestigious wool house in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth.

Every morning from September through May we received code cables from one or more of these markets, with information to be relayed to customers. Every night we coded orders and replies, remembering always that there was a time difference of 15 hours. Guess, then, how much amplifying correspondence was exchanged. Add to this load the cables and letters to less-active accounts in South Africa, South America, and the Channel Islands, as well as paper work for our American clients. And this was before photocopying machines!

The senior partner of Kent & Sons was Sir Rowland, who, after the Australian winter arrived as an opposite to our summer, spent two or three weeks in Boston at each end of his annual trip ``home'' to London. And, during these visits, I was his handmaiden.

Sir Rowland was the most urbane man ever to come down the pike. When he walked in the door it was as if the whole world came in with him; and, in a way, it did, for he had cultural and government interests, as well as business ones, not only in London, but in Paris, Vienna, Rome, and way stations. A local example tells something of his life on this circuit: Because he was more than a would-be violinist, he was, on many of his evenings here, a personal guest of the concertmaster and other members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

A superior vocabulary provided one of the joys in taking his dictation. He also never had a sentence askew, a clause hanging in air. The flow of his words had rhythm. (And since he knew that I knew what I was doing, he never, never told me how to spell or punctuate.) But the fact that his letters were written on legal-length paper and seldom terminated in less than three pages is an indication of what was involved.

The letters and all of Sir Rowland's other business needs were plugged into our regular duties, which were diminished very little with the Australian season over, for the mopping-up operation ensued. And on top of everything, whether he was here or in Sydney, I was at his command to execute personal requests such as sending nylons to Aunt Dora in Cape Town. Yet regardless of long hours and hectic pace, to me Sir Rowland was a hero.

Almost. One black shaft streaked into the sunlight with which he surrounded me. During those summers, or at Christmas, or at any other appropraite time, my care and concern did not induce him to buy a 10-cent rose, a 5-cent candy bar, or a card as a token of appreciation. Though he was ever the courteous gentleman, I was sure that to him I was not a person.

Came the different day, in the last summer of my wool connection. Sir Rowland, on his return from London, passed me with his customary ``Good morning.'' No brief comment about his trip or about London, with which he realized I was familiar. Well, I reminded myself, I'm not a person.

But in half an hour the day changed. He approached my desk and in his mellow, inflected voice asked, ``Won't you please come in? I have something to give you.''

My former selfish thoughts tightened my throat and chastised my heart. He was a true hero, not 95 percent of one. He was catching on to the American way: I had had bosses who bought me presents in Boston on their lunch hour, never mind treasures they had picked up in Europe.

I touched my hair, retied my scarf, affixed my personal-occasion smile, and went in. There was no subtlety, I was sure, in my show of anticipation and pleasure.

He was already engrossed in his pile of mail. I did not sit, lest it appear that I expected social chitchat or a sizable gift that I would have to get a solid hold on in my lap. (Replica of Westminster Abbey? He knew the dean. My humor was holding up, anyway.)

Sir Rowland did not glance up until I pushed back a paper that was nearly falling from his desk. ``Yes,'' he said somewhat absently, as if he couldn't see me. Then the smile, ``Won't you sit down?''

Ah, the new man. He was going to be sociable. Perhaps there was a story to go with the present. And perhaps it was big. I giggled inside, tried a broader grin. My taut, empty hands stayed in the pockets of my skirt.

Silence as he opened his top drawer and removed a small black box. Jewelry, of course! A plain pin or bracelet wouldn't violate his sense of propriety.

``It's about this.'' He stretched his arm over the desk and my right hand came out of my pocket to move toward it.

The mellow voice again, this time his eyes firmly meeting mine. ``Yes,'' he repeated. ``I want to give you a letter to my sister-in-law in Honolulu. Then you can mail the package to her.''

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