- CHAPTER XXVII THE BATTLE
|<< chapter 26||< chapter 1|
ALL the morning Win was in a state of strange, almost hysterical exaltation. Again and again she warned her spirit down from the heights, but it would not hear, and stood there in the sunshine singing a wild song of love and joy.
Wonderful, incredible pictures painted themselves before her eyes. She saw Peter, impressed with her words—as indeed he had seemed to be—and remembering them nobly for the benefit of the two thousand hands within the Hands. She saw herself as his wife (oh, bold, forbidden thought, which dared her to push it from her heart!) helping him reach the ideal standard of what a great department-store should be, planning new and highly improved systems of insurance, thinking out ways for employés to share profits, and of giving them pensions.
She who knew what the hands suffered and what they needed could do for them what no outsider could ever do. With Peter's money and power and the will to aid there would be nothing they two could not accomplish. Their love would teach them how to love the world. She saw the grand Christmas parties and the summer picnics the Hands would give the hands, and Peter's idea for a convalescent home should be splendidly carried out. She saw the very furniture and its chintz covers—then the picture would vanish like a rainbow—or break into disjointed bits, like the jig-saw puzzle Peter senior had hidden shamefacedly in a drawer.
For some moments Winifred's mind would be a blank save for a jumble of Paris mantles and warm customers, then another picture would form; she would see Peter | | 300 and herself sending Sadie Kirk to the mountains, where the girl would be even happier and healthier than at the new place which was "free for consumps." Sadie would be Win's own special charge, her friend, for whom she had the right and privilege to provide. No more work in shops for Sadie! No more work at all till she was cured. Perhaps a winter in the Adirondacks, then such radiant health as the "sardine" had hardly ever known.
Meanwhile the thoughts of Ursus must be turned from the girl who could never love him to the girl who already did. He and Sadie had been good chums since the day when all three marched in procession towards Mr. Meggison's window—how long ago it seemed! The big heart of the lion-tamer was easily moved to pity, and pity was akin to love. When she—Win—gently broke it to him that she was going to marry Peter Rolls, whom she had loved before she ever saw her poor Ursus (of course she had loved Peter always! that was why it had hurt her so cruelly to believe Ena), the dear big fellow, pitying Sadie's weakness, would turn to his "little old chum" for comfort.
Oh, yes, everything would come right! warbled the disobedient spirit singing on the heights. Then the common sense and pride in Win would pluck the spirit's robe, and presto! another picture would dissolve into grey clouds.
Going out to luncheon (ice-cream soda and a spongecake) somehow broke the radiant charm. Common sense put the singing spirit relentlessly into its proper place, where, discouraged, it sang no more. Ugly memories of last night's danger and humiliation crowded back into the brain no longer irradiated by Peter's presence. Win felt dully that none of the glorious fancies of the morning could ever come true, though she still hoped that her words might have some living influence upon the future of the Hands.| | 301
Even if Peter really and truly wanted to marry her (which seemed incredible) and his sister misjudged him (also well-nigh incredible), Ena Rolls and Ena Rolls's father would bar the way to any such happiness as the magic pictures had shown. It would be hateful to force herself upon a snobbish family who despised her and let her feel that she was unwelcome.
The girl was suddenly surprised because she hadn't seen, the moment Peter's back was turned (even if not before), that the one self-respecting thing was to give up her place at the Hands. It would be decent and rather noble to disappear as she had disappeared before, so that Peter, when he came again (as he surely would), should find her gone.
This thought made so gloomy a picture in contrast with the forbidden bright ones that Win was nearer tears than she had been in the hospital room.
"Laugh—laugh—if you laugh like a hyena!" she was saying to herself between half-past four and five, when other girls were thinking of the nice things they would do when they got home.
Win envied them. She wished the things that satisfied them could satisfy her. Yet, no, she did not wish that. Divine dissatisfaction was better. She must keep this conviction before her through years which might otherwise be grey. For now she was quite sure that nothing beautiful, nothing glorious, nothing even exciting could ever happen to her. And it was at this very moment that she received a peremptory summons to Mr. Croft's office.
"It'll be about the fire, maybe," the nicest girl in the department encouraged her. "I shouldn't wonder if they're going to give you a reward. If there was anything wrong, the word would come through Meggison sure."
Win smiled thanks as she went to her fate; the girl was kind, not of the tigress breed. But she couldn't | | 302 guess how little any paltry act of injustice from the Hands would matter now.
Miss Child had never before been called to the office of the great Mr.Croft, but she knew where it was, and walked to the door persuading herself that she was not in the least afraid. Why should she be afraid when she intended—really quite intended—to leave the Hands of her own accord?
There was an outer office guarding the inner shrine, and here a girl typist and a waxy-faced young man were getting ready to go home. It was now very near the closing hour. The waxy-faced youth, a secretary of Mr. Croft's, minced to the shrine door, opened it, spoke, returned, and announced that Miss Child was to go in. He even held the door for her, which might be a sign of respect, or of compassion for one about to be executed. Then, as the girl stepped in, the door closed behind her and she stood in an expensively hideous room, looking at the little, dried-up dark man who sat in Mr. Croft's chair at Mr. Croft's desk. But he was not Mr. Croft. He was Peter Rolls senior.
Win recognized him instantly and knew not what to think. Luckily he did not keep her long in suspense.
"You Miss Child?" he shortly inquired, holding her with a steady stare which from a younger man would have been offensive.
"I am, sir," she said in the low, sweet voice that Peter junior loved. Even Peter senior was impressed with it in spite of himself, impressed with the whole personality of the young woman whom Petro had said was "made to be a princess." She looked a more difficult proposition than he had expected to tackle.
"Know who I am?" He continued his catechism.
"You are Mr. Rolls."
"What makes you so sure of that, eh?"
"You were pointed out to me one evening last winter when you were inspecting the shop with Mr. Croft."| | 303
"Nobody had any business pointing me out. Who did it?"
"I'm afraid I've forgotten," said the girl, more calmly than she felt. "It was so long ago."
"You seem to have been dead certain he was right."
"I took it for granted."
"That's dangerous, taking things for granted. I advise you not to do it, Miss Child."
Still he stared as she received his advice in silence. Not a feature of the piquant, yet proud, arresting face, not a curve of the slim figure did his old eyes miss.
"I guess you haven't forgotten who pointed me out," he persisted after a pause. "Now think again. Have you? It might pay to remember."
"I do not remember, sir." She threw up her head in the characteristic way which the other Peter knew.
"Sure nothing could make you remember?"
"I'm sure nothing could."
"Very well, then, we must let that go for the present. Now to another subject. I hear you showed a good deal of pluck this morning in putting out a fire."
"Oh, after all, it may be only that!" Win thought.
She ought to have been relieved. But she was not certain whether relief was her most prominent emotion. The girl did not quite know what to make of herself, and the man was not giving her much time for reflection.
"The little I did was done on the spur of the moment," she said. "I don't deserve any credit."
"Well, I may be inclined to think different when it comes to settling up. That depends on several things. We'll come to 'em by and by. You're English, ain't you?"
"H-m! You look as if you ought to have titles running in your family. Have you got any?"
Win fancied that this must be her employer's idea | | 304 of a joke, but his face was grave, and even curiously eager. "Not one," she answered, smiling.
"No connections with titles?"
"Why, yes, we have some cousins afflicted in that way," she lightly admitted, beginning to be faintly amused as well as puzzled. "Almost every one has, in our country, I suppose."
"What sort of title is it?"
"Oh, my father's second cousin happens to be an earl."
"An earl, is he? That stands pretty high, I guess, on your side. Any chance of your father inheriting?"
This time Win allowed herself the luxury of a laugh. What a strange old man! And this was Mr. Balm of Gilead's father!
She was still in the dark as to why he had sent for her. But it must be on account of the fire. His curiosity was very funny. In any one except Peter's father she would have considered it ridiculous. Maybe he wanted to work up a good "story" in the newspapers. Very likely it could be turned into an "ad." for the Hands if the cousin of an English earl had saved a fellow employée from burning up, and it would be still more thrilling if the heroine might some day turn into a haughty Lady Winifred Something. She shook her head, looking charming. Even old Peter, staring so intently, must have admitted that.
"There's not the remotest chance," she replied. "Our cousin, Lord Glenellen, has six sons. Four are married and having more sons every year. I don't know how many there are. And I'm sure that they've forgotten our existence."
"Well, there ain't much show for you in that connection!"
Mr. Rolls reluctantly abandoned the earldom. "What's your father, anyhow?"
"A clergyman," said Win. "A poor clergyman, or I should never have seen America."| | 305
"I suppose you'd have married some fellow over there. What did you do for a living on your side?"
"I hadn't begun to do anything till I engaged with Nadine—the dressmaker, you know—to be one of her models on board the Monarchic so as to get my passage free. I thought I should be sure to make a fortune in New York."
"Yes, I guess that was your point of view. You're frank about it, ain't you?"
"One may be about a lost illusion."
"There's more than one way for a girl to make a fortune. Maybe you and I can do business. So you were one of those models when you first met my son?"
Win would not have been flesh and blood if that shot had not told, especially after the old man's funny catechizing had lured her amusingly away from suspicion. She quivered, and a bright colour stained her cheeks. Nevertheless,those peering eyes found no guilt in her look.
"Yes," she answered bravely. "He bought a dress from us for his sister."
"One excuse is as good as another for a young fellow. What else did he do?"
"Gave us patent medicine. We were all dreadfully seasick."
"You don't mean to tell me he fell in love with you when you were seasick?"
"I don't mean to tell you that he fell in love with me at all, Mr. Rolls."
"I guess you didn't mean to. But, you see, I made you own up."
"There was nothing to tell."
"Well, the murder's out, anyhow. And that brings us back to a point I want to touch on. Now that affair of this morning. You say you're entitled to no credit. But I've been thinking I'd like to make it up to you by giving a reward."| | 306
"I couldn't think of taking it! cried Win.
Strange that he should break off suddenly from the subject of his son (which, apparently, he had intended pursuing to some end) and jump back to that of the fire! He must have a motive—he looked a man to have motives for everything. She felt that he was laying a trap for her, if she could only find it.
"Wait a minute. Give me time to make myself clear," he went on. "I'm not talking about medals or lockets or silver cups for good girls. I mean a thumping sum, a big enough stone to kill two birds. Folks not in the know would think that it was for saving life. Those in the know (meaning me and you, and nobody else) would understand that it was for saving my son. No disrespect to you. I want to put it delicately, miss. Saving him from a mistake."
Win had always thought "How dare you?" a very silly expression, no matter what the provocation. Yet now she was tempted to use it. Only her subconscious sense of humour, which warned her it would be ridiculous from Peter Rolls's "saleslady" to Peter Rolls himself, made her bite back the words that rushed to the end of her tongue.
"You have a strange idea of putting things delicately!" she cried. "You offer me a reward if I—if I—oh, I can't say it!"
"I can," volunteered the old man coolly. "And I'll tell you just how much I offer. Maybe that'll help your talking-apparatus. I'll give you ten thousand dollars. Wouldn't that be something like making your fortune in New York?"
"If it were ten millions it would make no difference," the girl flung at him. "I——"
"Say, you set a high value on my son Peter. But if he marries you, my girl, he won't be worth any millions, or even thousands, I tell you straight. He won't be worth a red cent. You'd better pick up my offer while | | 307 it's going and drop Peter. Maybe with ten thousand dollars of your own one of your young cousins, the earls, might find you worth while."
Never had Win even dreamed that it was possible for a human soul so to boil with anger as hers had now begun to boil. She wanted to scald this hateful old man with burning spray from the geyser. At last she understood the rage which could kill. Yet it was in a low, restrained voice that she heard herself speaking.
"Please don't go on," she warned him. "I suppose you don't quite realize how hideously you're insulting me. A man who could say such things wouldn't. And only such a man could misunderstand—could think that instead of refusing his money I was bidding for more. I wanted to say that you could save your son and your pocket, too. Neither are in danger from me."
"That ain't the way the boy feels about it." Peter senior slipped the words in slyly. "If he did, I wouldn't have sent for you."
This was the last drop in the cup.
"What?" cried the girl, towering over the shrunken figure in the revolving chair. "Your son asked you to send for me? Then he's as bad, as cruel, as you are."
A red wave of rage swept over her. She no longer knew what she was saying. Her one wish—her one object in life, it seemed just then—was to hurt both Peters.
"I hate him!" she exclaimed. "Everything I've heard about him is true after all. He's a false friend and a false lover—a dangerous, cruel man to women, just as I was warned he was."
"Stop right there," broke in Peter's father. "That's damn nonsense, and you know it. Nobody ever warned you that my boy was anything of the kind."
"I was warned," she beat him down, "that it was a habit of your son to win a girl's confidence with his kind ways and then deceive her."| | 308
"Then it was a damned lie, and no one but a damned fool would believe it," shouted Peter Rolls senior. "My boy a deceiver of women? Why, he's a Gala-what-you-may-call-it! He'd die any death sooner than harm a woman. I'm his father, and I know what I'm talking about. Who the devil warned you? Some beast, or some idiot?"
"It was neither."
"Who was it, then? Come, out with it. I dare you to. I'll have him sued for slander. I'll——"
"It wasn't a he. It was a woman who ought to know at least as much about him as you do."
"There's no such woman, except his mother, and she worships the ground he walks on. Thinks he's a kind of up-to-date Saint George, and I'm hanged if she's far wrong. Why, since Peter was a boy he's never cared that"—and a yellow thumb and finger snapped for emphasis under Win's eyes—"for any woman till he got silly over you."
The girl laughed a fierce little laugh. "You tell me this? You defend him to me? Is that policy?"
Peter senior suddenly looked foolish. He had straightened himself to glare at the upstart. Now he collapsed again.
"No, it ain't policy," he confessed, "but I guess it's human nature. My blood ain't quite dried up yet, and I can't sit quiet while anybody blackguards my own flesh and bone. You tell me who said these things about him!"
"I will not tell you."
"Don't you know I'm liable to have you discharged for impudence?"
"You can't discharge me, for I've already discharged myself. I'd rather starve than serve one more day at your horrid old Hands."
"Horrid old Hands, eh? I can keep you from getting a job in any other store."
"I don't want one. I've had enough of stores. I am | | 309 not afraid of anything you can do, Mr. Rolls. Though they do call you 'Saint Peter' behind your back—meaning just the opposite—you haven't the keys of heaven."
"You're an impudent young hussy."
"Perhaps. But you deserve impudence. You deserve worse, sir. A moment ago I hated you. I—I think I could have killed you. But—but now I can't help admiring something big in you, that makes you defend your son in spite of yourself, when it was policy to let me loathe him."
"'Loathe ' is no word to use for my boy," the old man caught her up again. "I don't want you to marry him, no! But, whatever happens, I can't have you or anyone else doing him black injustice."
"Then, 'whatever happens,' I'll admit to you that never in the bottom of my heart did I believe those things. I didn't believe them to-day, but I—you were so horrible—I had to be horrible, too. There! The same motive that made you defend him against your own interest has made me confess that to you now. But you needn't be afraid. I don't think in any case I could have married him knowing how his—his family would feel. Still I might, if he'd tried to persuade me, I can't be sure. I might have been weak. As it is though-—after you've insulted me in this cruel way, I believe nothing would induce me to say yes if he asked me. And he never has asked me."
"Never has asked you?" echoed Peter senior, dumbfounded.
Someone had begun to knock at the door, but he did not hear. Neither did Winifred. Each was absorbed in the other. Insensibly their tones in addressing each other were changed. Some other ingredient had mysteriously mingled with their rage; or, poured upon its stormy surface, had calmed the waves. They were enemies still; but the girl had found the man human; | | 310 the man, because he was man, found himself yielding to her woman's domination.
Petro said God had made her a princess. She was only a shop-girl, and the vain old man wanted her out of his way—intended to put her out of his way, by hook or by crook; but all the same in look and manner she was his ideal of a girl-queen, and he could understand Petro being a fool over her.
"He never has asked you? But I thought——"
(Tap, tap for the second and third time.)
"I know what you thought. You wouldn't listen when I tried to explain."
(Tap, tap, tap! No answer. And so the door opened.)
"It isn't only that your son hasn't asked me to marry him, he hasn't even told me he cared."
"But he does both now," said Peter Rolls junior, on the threshold.
As he spoke he came into the room with a few long, quick steps that took him straight to Win, as if he wanted to protect her against his father if need be. And timidly, yet firmly, he was followed by Mrs. Rolls wearing the new grey wrap.
"I'd have told you long ago if I'd had the chance," he went on. "I told Father this morning that I'd loved you ever since the first minute I saw you, and that you were the only girl who ever was or ever would be. I don't know what he's been saying to you, but I felt he meant to—to—see what you were like. So I came. And nothing matters if you can care a little and have faith enough in me to——"
"That's just what she doesn't do and hasn't got!" interpolated Peter senior. "The girl's been calling you every name she could turn her tongue to. Said she was warned against you by some woman—she wouldn't tell me who it was——"
"I know who it was," put in his son.| | 311
"You do? We'll send her a writ, then—"
"We can't. She isn't in the country just now."
"I did say the most hateful things," Win admitted, "because your father made me so angry. And—he defended you against me! He said nobody but a fool could ever for a minute have believed such things were true. And he was perfectly right. Can you forgive me?"
"Why, I love you, you know," said Peter. "And whether you ever believed anything wrong of me or not, I—I almost think you love me a little now to make up. You couldn't look at me like that if you didn't, could you? It wouldn't be fair."
"I mustn't look at you at all, then," Win answered, pushing him gently away as he tried to take her hands. "Please let me go. I can't——"
"I wouldn't let you go, if he did, my dear," said a gentle voice that had not spoken yet. "I guess a girl that saves people from themselves when they're on fire, burning up, and don't know in the least what they're doing, would be just the kind of new daughter we would like to have, now when we have to let our own leave us. Why, you would be worth your weight in gold at our house. Isn't that so, Father?"
For once Mother had finished four consecutive sentences in her husband's presence. But this was an unusual occasion. It seemed to her that its like could never come again and that here was her chance of a lifetime to stand by Petro.
"H-m!" grunted Peter senior. "The girl ain't a coward, anyhow. She stood up to me like a wild cat. Said she hated me. Said she wouldn't take Peter if I paid her to—or words to that effect. Well, I didn't exactly offer to pay her for doing that, rather the other way around. But when she had the gorgeous cheek to up and say, after all, that she liked me for defending you, why, I—well, I don't know how it was, but all of a | | 312 sudden I weakened to her. She got me, same way as she got you, Peter, I suppose. Maybe it was with one of her laughs! Anyhow—look here, miss. If you'll take back your words, I'll take back mine. Cut 'em right out."
"Which words?" Win cautiously wanted to know.
"The whole lot, while we're about it. I guess a sister-in-law who's got earls for cousins ought to be good enough for a marchesa. You've got me, I tell you! And you can have Peter, too, if you want him. Do you?"
"I do," answered Win—and laughed again, the happiest, most surprised and excited laugh in the world.
"Then we've got each other—for ever!" cried Petro. "And, Father, you and I will have each other, too, after this, as we never had before. You shall bless this day as I do, and as Mother will."
"All right," said old Peter. "We'll see about that. Anyhow, shake hands."
"And you, too, girl."
Winifred hesitated slightly, then held out her burned fingers.
Peter senior gave them deliberately to his son.
"There you are!" he exclaimed. "Now we're all three in the business."
"And this is the way we're going to run it in future," said Petro. "With love."
|<< chapter 26||< chapter 1|