- CHAPTER XXIV THINGS EXPLODING
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LILY LEAVITT did not come back to Mantles next morning. She sent no word, asked no leave for illness—and the rule at the Hands was discharge for such an omission. If she appeared again her place would be filled—unless she had a strong enough "pull" to keep it open.
Win, who arrived promptly, as usual (just as if last night's adventure had been a black dream), heard the other girls talking about Lil. She listened and said nothing; had no opinion when asked what she thought. But not a soul pitied Miss Leavitt. The general idea seemed to be that she was one "who knew which side her bread was buttered." She would not be stopping away without notice unless she had done better for herself. Probably she had secretly married one of those swell beaux she was always boasting about!
Win, pale and absent-minded (but that might be the heat), was giving the finishing touches to a cloaked group of figurines when a letter was brought to her by a messenger-boy. It was not yet time for Peter Rolls's doors to open to the world, but the girl had to finish her task before reading the note. A glance at the envelope showed Sadie's handwriting, and as Sadie ought at that moment to have been making the toilets of dolls upstairs, Win realized that something unexpected must have happened.
Perhaps Sadie was ill and wanted her to explain to the management. She must make short shrift with the | | 267 figurines and be ready to help Sadie before strenuous life began.
Five minutes later five headless ladies in perfectly draped wraps were showing off their finery to the best advantage, and their tiring-maid was standing as still as they, an open letter in her hand.
"What's the matter?" asked a pretty, snub-nosed girl who laughed oftener than Win in these days. "You look as if you'd lost your last friend."
"I'm afraid—I have," Winifred replied in a strange, withdrawn voice which made Daisy Thompson's eyes widen.
"Say! I'm real sorry! I hope it ain't your beau."
Win did not answer, because she did not hear. Sadie! Sadie! The dear little old sardine!
"Good-by, deerie," she read again. "I coodn't of said this to yure fase. I only noo for shure yesterdy. Its cunsumsion and they won't have me back for fere of my giving it to others. I gess thats right tho its hard luck on me. It aint that I care much about living. I dont, becawse theres sum one I love who loves another girl. Shes a lot better than me and werthy of him so thats all right too but it herts and Id be kind of glad to go out. Dont you be afrade of me doing anything silly in the tabloyde line tho. I wont. Im no coward. But I got to leeve this house for the same reeson as the Hands. I mite give my truble to sum one else. Its a good thing we found out in time. Ive hurd of a noo plase where they take consumps for nuthing, and Ive got to steer for it. Its in the country but I wont tell you where deerie or you mite try to see me and I dont think I cood stand it the way I feel now. But I love you just as much. Good by. Yure affecshunate Sadie."
Win was overwhelmed. Lately she had seen little of her friend. Neither girl had much time, and the weather had drunk all their energy. She ought to have | | 268 guessed from Sadie's thinness that she was ill. She ought—oh, she ought to have done a dozen things that she had not done! Now it was too late.
But no, it mustn't be too late! She would find out where Sadie was. It ought to be easy, for the verdict which had sent the girl away from the Hands must have been that of a young doctor who attended the employés. There were certain hours when he came to the hospital room which Win had seen on her first day at Peter Rolls's. One of these hours was just before the opening of the shop. Perhaps he hadn't yet got away.
The floor-walker who controlled Mantles was one of the smartest men in any department, somewhat of a martinet, but inclined to be reasonable with those who had any "gumption." Miss Child had gumption, and though it was nearly time for the public to rush in (there was a bargain sale that day), he gave her a permit of absence.
"Nothing worse than a headache, I hope, takes you to the H.R.?" he questioned, scrawling his powerful name. "We need everybody to get busy to-day."
"I'm going to beg for some sal volatile," answered Win, and determined to do so, as even white fibs were horrid little things, almost as horrid as cowardly, scuttling black-beetles.
Poor Sadie had giggled the other night: "You stick even to the truth this hot weather!"
The doctor had not gone, but he did not know of the new place Sadie referred to, and, not knowing, didn't believe in its existence. He had told Sadie Kirk yesterday that her lungs were infected and that she had become "contagious." Of course she had had to be discharged. These things were sad, but they were a part of the day's work. It was a pity that Miss Kirk hadn't been longer with the Hands. Her insurance money wouldn't amount to much.| | 269
"Do you mean to say that they've sent her away to die and haven't given her anything?" Win gasped.
"Not to die, I hope," said young Dr. Marlow. "She's curable. But she wouldn't get more than a week's salary with her discharge, I'm afraid. Old Saint Peter isn't in this business for his health."
"Or for any one else's," the girl retorted.
Marlow shrugged his shoulders, bowed slightly to the pretty but unreasonable young woman, and went away.
Winifred also should have gone. She had got her sal volatile and her information. But life was lying in ruins around her—Sadie's life, if not her own—and she did not know how to set about reconstructing it.
"What man does she love who loves another girl?" she asked herself.
Then, suddenly, she knew. It was Earl Usher, and he loved her, Winifred, who could never be more to him than a friend.
Win had heard of a "vicious circle." It seemed that she and Sadie and Ursus were travelling in one, going round and round, and could never get out.
"But I must go down," the mechanical part of herself kept repeating.
She had involuntarily paused near the door to think things out in peace. There were no patients for the two narrow white beds, and the nurse—a small, nervous woman with sentimental eyes—was heating water over a spirit-lamp. She suffered from headache and had prescribed herself some tea. The water had begun to boil, and despite the throbbing in her temples she hummed monotonously: "You Made Me Love You."
Winifred heard the tune through her thoughts of Sadie and Earl Usher, and everything seemed to become sadder and more hopeless. But suddenly the singing broke off—the thin voice rose to a shriek, and was lost in a loud explosion.| | 270
In the act of going out Win turned, bewildered and expecting horror. Head down, her hands covering her burned face, the nurse came staggering towards the door. Hair and cap were on fire. All over the white dress and apron were dotted little blue tongues of flame that had spouted out from the bursting lamp.
Often such an accident had been lightly prophesied by this very woman. The spirit sent up for the hospital was of the cheapest. Peter Rolls was "not in business for his health!"
Dazed by the deafening noise, and shocked to the very heart by the woman's shriek of pain, Win was not conscious of thought. She did not tell herself to spring to the nearest bed, tear off the covering, stop the nurse before she could rush wildly into the corridor, and wrap her in the blanket. All she knew for a moment was that she had done and was doing these things, that she was using her strength to hold the maddened creature, and all the while calling out for help.
The doctor had not yet reached the end of the long corridor, and the explosion and cries brought him and others running. Vaguely Win was conscious that there were women there, maids who cleaned floors and windows, and that there were two or three men besides Dr. Marlow. She thought that he ordered some of them out and gave directions to others, but the scene sharpened into detail only when she heard herself told to stay and give assistance.
She aiding the doctor, the nurse's burns were dressed. The little quivering creature, hastily undressed, was put to bed, face, head, arms, and hands covered with oil and bandaged. It was not until another nurse—telephoned for from somewhere to somewhere—had arrived, and the invalid had been given an opiate, that Win realized the tingling pain in her own fingers.
"Why, yes, so I am burned a little!" she exclaimed | | 271 when the doctor asked to see her hands. "But it's nothing to matter. I can go back to work now. Nurse is all right."
"No, it's nothing to matter, and you can go back to work, all right," briskly echoed Marlow, who was no coddler of any hands at Peter Rolls's; "that is, you can when I've patched you up a bit. And nurse isn't going to be bad, either. She won't be disfigured, I can guarantee that—thanks to you."
"Thanks to me?" Win echoed.
"Yes, just that. Perhaps you don't realize that you probably saved her life."
"No. I—I don't think I've realized anything yet." She found herself suddenly wanting to cry, but remembered a day on the Monarchic (as she always did remember if tears felt near) and swallowed the rising lump in her throat.
"Well, don't bother about it. You can get conceited later. Here, drink this to quiet your nerves in case you feel jumpy, and now run along. It'll be all right for you downstairs. The news will have got to your dep. by this time and they'll know why you're late."
Win "ran along" and found the doctor's prophecy correct. The news had bounded ahead of her.
"I hear you've been distinguishing yourself," said Mr. Wellby, the floor-walker. "Let's see your hands. Oh, I guess they won't put you out of business, a brave girl like you."
"I'm as well as ever, thank you," said Win.
Stupid of her, wanting to cry again just because people were paying her compliments! But perhaps she hadn't quite got over last night and not sleeping at all. And then Sadie's letter. Things had piled on top of each other, but she mustn't let herself go to pieces. She must keep her wits and think—think—think how to get at Sadie and what to do for her.| | 272
Dr. Marlow had covered Win's fingers with something he called "newskin," since it would not do for a "sales-lady" to disgust customers by serving them with bandaged hands. It was like a transparent varnish and made her nails shine as brightly as those of the vainest girls who spent all their spare time in polishing. But the redness showed through, as if her hands were horribly chapped. She saw a lady who had asked her to try on a white lace evening coat staring at them.
"What's the matter with your hands?" The question came sharply.
"I scalded them a little this morning," Win explained.
"Oh! I'm glad it isn't a disease."
The girl blushed faintly, ashamed, glanced down at the offending pink fingers, and turning slowly round to display the cloak, suddenly looked up into the eyes of Peter Rolls.
She could not help starting and drawing in her breath. For half a second her brain whirled and she thought that she imagined him, that it was just such another vision as those of last night when she had put on the Moon dress.
His eyes were looking at her as they had looked then, and they were the good blue eyes of Mr. Balm of Gilead. It could not be that he was really here gazing at her. It must be some other man like him. But no! He had taken off his hat. He was saying something in the well-remembered—too well-remembered!—voice.
"How do you do, Miss Child? When you've finished with this lady, I shall be so much obliged if you can speak to me for a minute."
She bowed her head—quite a polite, ordinary sort of bow, just like that of any well-trained saleslady to a prospective customer intending to wait till she was free. But really it did not mean politeness at all. It meant that she had to hide her face, and that it was | | 273 taking every square inch of nerve force she had to behave in the least like a saleslady.
It was seeing Peter Rolls suddenly—Peter Rolls in flesh and bone and muscle and magnetism of eyes—which told her in a devastating flash a thing about herself she had feared for months—ever since the day she turned her back upon Mr. Balm of Gilead and the Monarchic.
She was in love with him. Hideously, desperately, overwhelmingly in love with him, just as ridiculous girls always were with men they oughtn't to think of. Probably he had tried to make her so at first with his friendly, chivalrous ways that hid blacknesses underneath.
She had escaped, thanks to his sister. And it looked as if those horrid hints had indeed been true, otherwise he would not have troubled to persist after his snubbing. For he had persisted. Some glint of blue light in the steady eyes told her that. This was not a coincidence. Mr. Rolls had the air of having found her at last. She must make him sorry for it. Because, after her experience of the other man who had persisted—though she thought herself forgotten—why should she hope against hope that this man was different?
At last the customer, who did not hurry in the least—rather the contrary—wore all excuses for lingering to shreds. She waddled fatly away, carrying the lace cloak with her; and Win, not shirking the ordeal as she had done when Jim Logan haunted Toyland, turned to Peter Rolls.
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