- CHAPTER XXV A PIECE OF HER MIND
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A PIECE OF HER MIND
"MISS CHILD, I've been looking for you for months!" were Peter's first words when he had her to himself.
Instantly she knew what her pose ought to be. Not prim stiffness, not suspicious maidenly dignity, but just smiling civility, a recognition of past slight acquaintance. This would do for the beginning. This must surely show him that the tactics Ena credited him with were useless here.
"Have you? How nice of you to say so," she braced herself to reply with gayest indifference. "Well, I've been in this store for—a long time, migrating from one department to another and learning the business. I'm quite a fair saleswoman now, I assure you. Are you going to buy a cloak? Because, if not—this is a busy morning."
"Yes, I'll buy one as a present for my mother," said Peter. "I should like you to choose her something. I described her to you once, but I suppose you've forgotten. She's little, and rather plump, and has beautiful white hair and a rosy complexion. But, Miss Child, I want to talk to you, not about cloaks, but about yourself. I've asked permission, and they know who I am, and it's all right. I said you and my sister were friends. That's true, isn't it?"
"I believed we were friends once. And we were, too. | | 275 The more I've thought of it, the surer I've been. Something happened to make you change your mind about me. I was struck all of a heap at first. I didn't have the sense to know what to say or do, to try and put myself back where I had been. I let you go. And I lost you. But I'm not going to lose you again. You can see how much in earnest I am when I tell you that I haven't stopped looking for you for one single day after I realized you wouldn't keep your promise about writing my sister."
"It wasn't a promise," breathed Win. "I—never meant to write to her."
"I thought so!"
"Why should I? It was very kind of Miss Rolls to suggest it, if I should ever want help. But I didn't want help. All I wanted was to get on by myself."
"I know you mean me to understand from that, Miss Child, that you don't think I've any right to force myself on you after you showed me so plainly you thought me a bounder," said Peter, not mincing his words or stumbling over them. "But I'm not a bounder. There must be some way of proving to you that I'm not. That's why I'm here for one thing, though there's another——"
"What?" Winifred threw in, frightened, and thinking it better to cut him short in time.
"I want you to meet my mother and let her help you to get some kind of a position more—more worthy of your talents than this."
Win laughed aloud. "You run down your father's shop?"
"It's not good enough for you."
She flushed, and all her pent-up anger against the House of the Hands tingled in that flush.
"You say so because I once had the great honour of being an acquaintance of yours—and your sister's," | | 276 she hurried breathlessly on. "For all the rest of the people here, the people you don't know and don't want to know, you think it good enough—too good, perhaps—even splendid! It does look so, doesn't it? Magnificent! And every one of your father's employés so happy—so fortunate to be earning his wages. They're worms—that doesn't matter to rich men like you, Mr. Rolls. Unless, perhaps, a girl happens to be pretty—or you knew her once and remembered that she was an individual. Oh, you must feel I'm very ungrateful for your interest. Maybe you mean to be kind—about your mother. But give your interest to those who need it. I don't. I've seen your name in the papers—interviews—things you try to do for the ' poor.' It's a sort of fad, isn't it?—in your set. But charity begins at home. You could do more by looking into things and righting wrongs in your father's own shop than anywhere else in the world."
She stopped, panting a little, her colour coming and going. She had not meant this at first. It was far removed from smiling civility, this—tirade! But, as Sadie Kirk would say, "He had asked for it."
He was looking at her with his straight, level gaze. He was astonished, maybe, but not angry. And she did not know whether to be glad or sorry that she had not been able to rouse him to rage. His look into her eyes was no longer that of a young man for a young woman who means much to him. That light had died while the stream of her words poured out.
For a moment, when she had ceased, they stared at each other in silence, his face very grave, hers flushed and suggesting a superficial repentance.
"Forgive me." She plumped two words into the pause, as if pumping air into a vacuum. "I oughtn't to have said all that. It was rude."
"But true? You think it's true?"| | 277
"You have been working here in my father's store for months, and you say I could do more good by righting the wrongs here than anywhere else in the world. That sounds pretty serious."
"It is serious. Whether I ought to have spoken or not."
"I tell you, you ought to have spoken. It was—brave of you. That's the way I always think of you, Miss Child, being brave—whatever happens. And laughing."
"I don't laugh now."
"Not at other people's troubles—I know. But you would at your own."
"I'm not thinking of my own. To-day of all days!"
He wondered what she meant. His mind flashed swiftly back to last night and all that had happened. He could have kissed the hem of her black dress to see her here, safe and vital enough to fling reproaches at him for his sins—of omission. Yet he must stand coldly discussing grievances. No, "coldly" was not the word. No word could have been less appropriate to the boiling emotions under Peter Rolls's grave, composed manner.
He let the baffling sentence go—a sentence which framed thoughts of Sadie Kirk.
"I should like to hear from you the specific wrongs you want righted," he said. "I know a girl of your sort wouldn't speak vaguely. You do mean something specific."
"Then tell me—now."
"You came to buy a cloak for your mother."
"I didn't come for that, and you know it. I came for you. But you put a shield between us to keep me off. When you have emptied your heart of some of | | 278 these grievances that are making it hot—against me, maybe you won't have to put me at the same distance. Maybe you'll let me be your friend again, if I can deserve it."
"I don't want to talk or think of ourselves at all!" she broke out.
"I don't ask you to. All that—and my mother's cloak, too—you needn't be getting down that box!—can wait. If you won't be my friend, anyhow show me how to help your friends."
"Oh, if you would do that!" Win cried.
"I will. Give me the chance."
Despite his injunction, she had taken from its neat oak shelf a box of summer wraps and placed it on the counter behind which she stood. Now, not knowing what she did, she lifted the cardboard cover and seemed to peep in at the folds of chiffon and silk.
Peter looked not at the box, but at her pitiful, reddened hands on the lid. The blood mounted slowly to his temples and he bit his lip. He, too, was standing, though any one of several green velvet-covered stools was at his service. He turned away, leaning so much weight on the bamboo stick he held that it bent and rather surprised him.
Suddenly the scene struck him as very strange, almost unreal—Winifred Child, his lost dryad, found in his father's store, separated from him by a dignified barrier of oak and many other things invisible! This talk going on between them—after last night! The hum of women's voices in the distance (they kept their distance in this vast department because he was Peter Rolls junior, as all the employés by this time knew) and the heavy heat and the smell of oak seemed to add to the unreality of what was going on. Fresias would have helped. But there was nothing here that suggested help—unless you wanted advice about a cloak.| | 279
Win had been marshalling her ideas like an army hastily assembled to fight in the dark.
"That is a favour I couldn't refuse to take from you, even if I would," she said in a low voice, "to help my friends."
"It is no favour. You'll be doing me that."
She went on as if he had not spoken.
"I don't know about any shops in New York except this one—only things I've heard. Some of the girls I've met here have worked in other department-stores. They say—this is one of the worst. I have to tell you that—now I've begun. There's no use keeping it back—or you won't understand how I feel. There are real abuses. The Hands don't break the laws—that's all. About hours—we close at the right time, but the salespeople are kept late, often very late, looking over stock. Not every night for the same people, but several times a week. We have seats, but we mustn't use them. It would look as if we were lazy—or business were bad. We 'lend' the management half the time we're allowed for meals on busy days—and never have it given back. The meals themselves, served in the restaurant—the dreadful restaurant—seem cheap, but they ought to be cheaper, for they're almost uneatable. Those of us who can't go out get ptomaine poisoning and appendicitis. I know of cases. Hardly any of us can afford enough to eat on our salaries. I should think our blood must be almost white!
"But nobody here cares how we live out of business hours, so long as we're 'smart' and look nice. When we aren't smart—because we're ill, perhaps—and can't any longer look nice—because we're getting older, or are too tired to care—why, then we have to go; poor, worn-out machines—fit for the junk-shop, not for a department-store! Even here, in Mantles, where we get a commission, the weak ones go to the wall. We | | 280 must be like wolves to make anything we can save for a rainy day. But any girl or man who'll consent to act the spy on others—there's a way to earn money, lots of it. A few are tempted. They must degenerate more and more, I think! And there are other things that drive some of us—the women, I mean—to desperation. But I can't tell you about them. You must find out for yourself—if you care."
"If I care!" echoed Peter.
"If you do, why haven't you found out all these things, and more, long ago?" she almost taunted him, carried away once again by the thought of those she championed—the "friends" she had not come to in her story yet.
"Because—my father made it a point that I should keep my hands off the Hands. That was the way he put it. I must justify myself far enough to tell you that."
"But—if one's in earnest, need one take no for an answer?"
"I suppose I wasn't in earnest enough. I thought I was. But I couldn't have been. You're making me see that now."
"I haven't told you half!"
"You really wish it?"
"The floor-walkers and others above them have power that gives them the chance to be horribly unjust and tyrannical if they like. There are lots of fine ones. But there are cruel and bad ones, too. And then—I can't tell you what life is like for the under dog! And cheating goes on that we all see and have to share in—sales of worthless things advertised to attract women. We get a premium for working off 'dead stock.' Each department must be made to pay, separately and on its | | 281 own account, you see, whatever happens! And that's why each one is its own sweat-shop——"
"I swear to you this isn't my father's fault," involuntarily Peter broke in. "He's not young any more, you see, and he worked so hard in his early years that he's not strong enough to keep at it now. Not since I can remember has he been able to take a personal interest in the store, except from a distance. He leaves it to others, men he believes that he can trust. Not coming here himself, he——"
"Why, he comes nearly every day!" Win cried out, then stopped suddenly at sight of Peter's face.
"I—am sure you're mistaken about that one thing, Miss Child," he said. "You must have been misinformed. They must have told you some one else was he——"
The girl was silent, but Peter's eyes held hers, and the look she gave him told that she was not convinced. "You don't believe me?" he asked.
"I believe you don't know. He does come. It's always been towards the closing hour when I've seen him. The first time he was pointed out to me was by a floor-walker on Christmas eve. I was in the toy department then. He was with Mr. Croft. How strange you didn't know!"
"If it was father—perhaps I can guess why he didn't want us to find out. But even now I—well, I shall go home and ask him if he realizes what is happening here. Somehow I shall help your friends, Miss Child."
"I haven't told you about them yet," Win said. "It was really one friend who was in my mind. There may be ever so many others just as sad as she. But her I love. I can't bear to have her die just because she's poor and unimportant—except to God. Dr. Marlow thinks she's curable. Only—the things she needs she can't afford to get, and I haven't any money left to buy them for | | 282 her; just my salary, and no more. There's one thing I can do, though! I'll learn to be a wolf, like some of the others, and snatch commissions."
"Don't do that! "Peter smiled at her sadly. "I shouldn't like to think of you turning into a wolf. Your friend is sick——"
"She was told by the doctor yesterday that it was a case of consumption. I had a letter from her this morning—bidding me good-bye. You see, she was discharged on the spot, with only a week's wages."
"Beastly!" exclaimed Peter. "There ought to be some kind of a convalescent home in connection with this store—or two, rather, one for contagious sort of things and the other not. I——"
"She wrote in her letter that she'd heard of a place where consumptives were taken in and treated free," Win went on when he paused. "But she wouldn't tell me where it was. And Dr. Marlow says there is nothing of the sort——"
"Oh, he can't have read the newspapers these last few days. It's been open a week."
"Then you know about it?"
"Yes. You see—it's a sort of—friend of mine who's started the scheme. The house is not very big yet. But he'll enlarge it if it makes a success."
"Yes. Anybody can come and be examined by the doctor. No case will be refused while there's room. I—my friend lost his dearest friend years ago—a boy of his own age then—from consumption. It almost broke his heart. And he made up his mind that when he grew up and had a little money of his own he'd start one of those open-air places in the country free."
"I believe you're speaking of yourself!" exclaimed Win, her face lighting. Then Ena Rolls's brother couldn't be all bad!| | 283
"Well, I'm in the business, too. This must be the place the girl is going to. She shall be cured, I promise you. And when she's well she shall have work in the country to keep her strong and make her happy. Will that please you?"
"Yes," Win answered. "But—it doesn't please me to feel you're doing it for that reason."
"I'm not. Only partly, at least. I'm thankful for the chance to help. And this shan't be all. There'll be other ways. Please don't think too badly of me, Miss Child. I trusted my father, as he wished. And he trusts Mr. Croft—too completely, I fear."
Again Win was silent. She had heard things about Peter Rolls senior which made her fancy that he was not a man to trust anyone but himself. And she did not yet dare to trust his son. The look was coming back into his eyes which made her remember that he was a man like other men. Yet it was hard not to trust him! And because it was so hard she grew afraid.
"Give me the address of that convalescent home," she broke her own silence by saying. "I want to write to my friend Sadie Kirk—and go to see her—if she's really there. Mr. Rolls, I shall bless you if she is cured."
Petro had taken out his card-case and was writing.
"Then, sooner or later, I shall have my blessing," he said quietly. "Couldn't you give me just a small first instalment of it now? Couldn't you tell me what changed you toward me on the ship? Had it anything to do with my family—any gossip you heard?
"In a way, yes. But I can't possibly tell you. Please don't ask me."
"I won't. Only give me some hope that I can live it down. You see, I can't spare you out of my life. I had you in it no more than a few days. Yet those days have made all the difference."
Win stiffened.| | 284
"I can't let you talk to me like that," she said almost sharply, if her creamy voice could be sharp. "I hate it. You'll make me wish—for my own sake—if it weren't for my friend, I mean—that you hadn't found me here. I thought—I don't see why I shouldn't say it!—when I asked for work in your father's store that none of the family would ever come near the place. I was told they never did. But it wasn't true. You all come!"
"You mean my father and I?"
"And Miss Rolls, too——"
"Yes, with Lord Raygan, and—and I think you and Lady Eileen were here, too."
"We were," Peter said. "And so—you were in the store even then? Nobody told me."
"I hoped they wouldn't."
It was his turn to be silent, understanding Eileen's dream. Raygan must have talked to her about the girl. But there would have been nothing to say, if Ena had not said it first. Ena had "explained things" to Raygan, perhaps—and then——
An old impression came back to Peter. He remembered Ena's protest against his friendship for a "dressmaker" and her kindness later. He remembered asking himself on the dock if Ena could have made mischief. He had put the thought away as treacherous, not once, but many times. Now he did not put it away. He faced it, and wondered if he could ever forgive his sister. It seemed at this moment that he never could.
"Will you choose the cloak for Mrs. Rolls?" Win was asking in the professional tone of the obliging young saleswoman.
"I—er—yes, I suppose so. Which one do you suggest?"| | 285
"Any of these would be charming for—the lady you've described. She'd like it better, I'm sure, if you chose it yourself."
"No, I want you to choose, please. I've already told her about you. If it hadn't been for her I shouldn't have found you so soon. She advised me to try the. Hands. No matter what you may think of me, there's only one opinion to have of Mother. And you can't object to meeting her. You choose the cloak and I'll bring her to see you—in it."
Win kept her eyes on the assortment of silk motoring and dust coats which she had arranged on the broad counter for Mr. Rolls's inspection. Suddenly a great weight was lifted from her head, as if kind hands had gently removed a tight helmet.
Would such a man as Ena Rolls had sketched in her shadow-portrait of a brother bring his mother to meet a shop-girl whom he fancied? It seemed not. Yet men of that type were the cleverest, as she already knew. Maybe he didn't really mean to bring Mrs. Rolls. It would be easy, from time to time, to postpone her visit. And Win was very proud. She thought of Ena's annoyance at happening upon her in the elevator, and how reluctantly Miss Rolls had taken up the cue of cordiality from Lord Raygan. Oh, it was best—in any case—it was the only way, to keep personalities out of her intercourse with the man who had once been Mr. Balm of Gilead.
"This silver-grey is one of the prettiest of the new wraps," she glibly advertised her wares.
"Very well, if you like it, I'll marry—I mean, I'll take it. Tell me how you hurt your hands."
"There's nothing to tell," she put him off again, visibly freezing—an intellectual feat in such weather.
"And—really, as I said before, I don't care to talk about myself."| | 286
Her look, even more than her words, shut Peter up. The cloak saved the situation during a few frigid seconds. But as a situation it had become strained. The only hope for the future was to go now. And Peter went. He went back to Sea Gull Manor and to his father.
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