Chapter XVII. Belle Launches Herself
 

Only the least of Belle's difficulties were past when she obtained consent to stand behind a counter. With her mother she made many a weary expedition through the hot streets, and was laughed at in some instances for even imagining that employment could be obtained at the dullest season of the year. As soon as their errand was made known they were met by a brief and often a curt negative. Mrs. Jocelyn would soon have been discouraged, but Belle's black eyes only snapped with irritation at their poor success. "Give up?" she cried. "No, not if I have to work for nothing to get a chance. Giving up isn't my style, at least not till I'm tired of a thing; besides it's a luxury poor people can't indulge in."

Mrs. Jocelyn felt that the necessity which compelled this quest was a bitter one, and her heart daily grew sorer that she had not resolutely saved part of every dollar earned by her husband in the old prosperous times. As she saw the poor young creatures standing wearily, and often idly and listlessly, through the long summer days, as her woman's eyes detected in the faces of many the impress of the pain they tried to conceal but could never forget, she half guessed that few laborers in the great city won their bread more hardly than these slender girls, doomed in most instances never to know a vigorous and perfected womanhood. "Belle, my child, how can you stand during these long, hot days? It's providential that we can't find any place."

"Well, mamma, I'm not very well up in the ways of Providence. I fear the dull season has more to do with it. Nevertheless I'm going to make a situation if I can't find one."

She had in her mind a shop on Sixth Avenue, which had the appearance of a certain "go and life," as she phrased it.

"There's a strong-willed, wide-awake man back of that establishment," she had said to herself more than once, "and if I could get at him I believe he'd give me work, but the hateful old foreman stands in the way like a dragon".

She and her mother had been curtly informed by this well-dressed "dragon," which parted its hair like a woman, that "there was no use in bothering the proprietor; he never added to his help in August--the idea was absurd."

One morning after Mrs. Jocelyn had about given up the hope of obtaining a place until the autumn trade revived--as far as it would revive in those languid years--Belle started out alone, heavily veiled, and with her purpose also veiled from her mother and Mildred. She went straight to the shop on Sixth Avenue that had taken her fancy, and walked up to the obnoxious foreman without a trace of hesitation. "I wish to see Mr. Schriven," she said, in a quiet, decisive manner.

"He is very busy, madam, and does not like to be disturbed. I will attend to anything you wish."

"Thank you; then please direct me to the proprietor's office without delay."

After a moment's hesitation the man complied. This veiled presence had the appearance of a gentlewoman and was decided in manner. Therefore he led the way to a small private office, and said, "A lady, sir, who insists on seeing you," and then discreetly closed the door and departed.

The man of business allowed his pen to glide to the end of his sentence before turning to greet his visitor. Belle in the meantime had advanced to a point from which she could look directly into his face, for, child though she was, she understood that it was her difficult task first to obtain a hearing, and then to disarm his anger at her intrusion. Aware, however, that she had nothing to lose and everything to gain by the adventure, her natural fearlessness and quickness of tongue carried her through. She had already guessed that an appeal for employment, even the most pitiful, would meet with a flat, prompt refusal, therefore she had resolved on different tactics.

At last the man lifted his head in his quick, imperious way, asking, as he turned toward her, "What is your business with me, madam?"

"I like your store very much," Belle remarked quietly.

Mr. Schriven now really glanced at her, and he found her brilliant black eyes and fair flushed face such pleasing objects of contemplation that he was content to look for a moment while he puzzled a little over the unexpected apparition. He then smiled satirically and said, "What follows from so momentous a fact?"

"It follows that I would rather be employed here than in other stores that I do not like so well. My mother and I have visited nearly every one, and I like yours best."

"Well, this is cool. You and your mother were refused employment at this season at all the others, were you not?"

"Yes, sir."

"And my foreman declined your services here, also, did he not?"

"Yes, sir, but I was sure that if I saw you I should obtain my wish. There's a life and snap about this place that I didn't see elsewhere, and therefore I knew a live man, and not a machine, was back of it, and that if I could see and talk with him he'd give me a chance."

"You are exceedingly flattering," said the man, with another satirical smile. "Has it not occurred to you that your course is just tinged with assurance?"

"Have I said or done anything unbecoming a lady?" asked Belle indignantly.

Mr. Schriven laughed good-naturedly, for Belle's snapping eyes and brusque ways were beginning to interest him. "Oh, I forgot that you American working-women are all ladies. I am told that you speak of certain of your number as 'scrub-ladies' and 'washer-ladies.'"

"You may call me a shop-girl, sir, as soon as I am in your employ."

"And why not now?"

"Because I'm not yet a shop-girl, and never have been one. I've often bought goods with my mother in this very store, and I come from as good blood as there is in the South. A few months ago my social position was as good as yours, and now that we have been unfortunate and I must work, I see no presumption in asking you to your face for honest work."

"Not at all, my dear young lady," resumed Mr. Schriven, still maintaining his half-amused, half-ironical manner, "but I must inform you that I cannot afford to employ my social equals as shop-girls."

"When I enter your employ of my own free will," responded Belle promptly, "I the same as promise to obey all the rules and regulations of your establishment, and I'll do it, too. What's more, I'll sell so many goods in dull times and all times that you can well afford to make a place for me if you have none. One thing is certain--I'm going to get work, and my work will repay those who employ me a hundred times."

"Well, you are an odd fish," Mr. Schriven ejaculated; "I beg your pardon, you are not yet in my employ--you are an eccentric young lady, and a very young one, too, to be making your way in the world in this irresistible style. You mean what you say, that if employed you will put on no airs and conform to rules?"

"I mean just what I say."

Mr. Schriven fell into a foxy fit of musing, and there rose before his mind the pale face and dragged, weary, listless look of a girl now standing at the ribbon counter. "She'll break down when hard work begins again," he thought; "she's giving way now with nothing much to do. To be sure she has been here a long time, and has done her best and all that, but her day is past, and here's plenty of young flesh and blood to fill her place. This one is rather young, but she's smart as a whip--she's full of mettle and is fresh and healthy-looking. It won't do to have pale girls around, for it gives cursed busybodies a chance to rant about women standing all day. (Out of the corner of his eye he measured Belle from head to foot.) She can stand, and stand it, too, for a long while. She's compact and stout. She's built right for the business." At last he said, aloud, "In case I should so far depart from my usual custom and make a place for you, as you suggest, what do you propose to charge for the services you rate so highly?"

"What you choose to give."

"Well," was the laughing answer, "there's method in your madness. Take that pen and write what I dictate."

Belle wrote a few sentences in a dashing, but sufficiently legible hand.

"You will have to practice a little, and aim at distinctness and clearness. That's more than style in business," Mr. Schriven continued deliberately, for the young creature was so delightfully fresh and original that he began to regard her as an agreeable episode in the dull August day. "I'll make a place for you, as you say, if you will come for three dollars a week and comply with the rules. You are to do just as you are bid by those having charge of your department, and you had better keep on their right side. You are not to come to me again, remember, unless I send for you," he concluded, with his characteristic smile; "an event that you must not look forward to, for I assure you such interviews are rare in my experience. Come next Monday at seven if you agree to these conditions."

"I agree, and I thank you," the girl promptly answered, her brilliant eyes glowing with triumph, for thoughts like these were in her mind: "How I can crow over mamma and Millie, who said this very morning there was no use in trying! Won't it be delicious to hand papa enough money to pay the rent for a month!" No wonder the child's face was radiant.

The thoughts of her employer were of quite a different character. He gave her a look of bold admiration, and said familiarly, "By Jupiter, but you are a daisy!"

Belle's manner changed instantly. He caught a swift, indignant flash in her dark eyes, and then she laid her hand on the door-knob and said, with the utmost deference and distance of manner, "I will try to attend to the duties of my station in a way that will cause no complaint. Good morning, sir."

"Wait a moment," and Mr. Schriven touched a bell, and immediately the foreman appeared.

"Give this girl a place next Monday at the ribbon counter," he said, in the quick staccato tones of one who is absolute and saves time even in the utterance of words. "I also wish to see you two hours hence."

The man bowed, as if all were a matter of course, but when he was alone with Belle he said sharply, "You think you got ahead of me."

He would indeed have been the most malicious of dragons had not Belle's smiling face and frank words disarmed him.

"I did get ahead of you, and you know it, but you are too much of a man to hold a grudge against a poor girl who has her bread to earn. Now that I am under your charge I promise that I'll do my best to please you."

"Very well, then; we'll see. I'll have my eye on you, and don't you forget it."

Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred laughed, sighed, and shook their heads over Belle's humorous account of her morning's adventure. They praised her motive, they congratulated her on her success, but her mother said earnestly, "My dear little girl, don't get bold and unwomanly. We had all better starve than come to that. It would wound me to the heart if your manner should ever cause any one to think of you otherwise than as the pure-hearted, innocent girl that you are. But alas! Belle, the world is too ready to think evil. You don't know it yet at all."

She knew it better than they thought. There was one phase of her interview with Mr. Schriven that she had not revealed, well knowing that her gentle mother would be inexorable in her decision that the shop must not even be entered again. The girl was rapidly acquiring a certain shrewd hardihood. She was not given to sentiment, and was too young to suffer deeply from regret for the past. Indeed she turned buoyantly toward the future, while at the same time she recognized that life had now become a keen battle among others in like condition.

"I don't intend to starve," she said to herself, "nor to bite off my own nose because the world is not just what mother and Millie think it ought to be. Papa would be inclined to break that man's head if I told him what he said and how he looked. But what would come of it? Papa would go to jail and we into the street. Unless papa can get up in the world again very fast, Millie and I shall find that we have got to take care of ourselves and hold our tongues. I hadn't been around with mamma one day before I learned that much. Mamma and Millie were never made to be working-women. They are over-refined and high-toned, but I can't afford too much of that kind of thing on three dollars a week. I'm a 'shop lady'--that's the kind of lady I'm to be--and I must come right down to what secures success without any nonsense."

In justice it should be said that Belle's practical acceptance of the situation looked forward to no compromise with evil; but she had seen that she must come in contact with the world as it existed, and that she must resolutely face the temptations incident to her lot rather than vainly seek to escape from them. Alas! her young eyes had only caught a faint glimpse of the influences that would assail her untrained, half-developed moral nature. Body and soul would be taxed to the utmost in the life upon which she was entering.

On the Sunday following Mr. Jocelyn slept so late that none of the family went to church. Indeed, since their old relations were broken up they scarcely knew where to go, and Mildred no more felt that she could return to the fashionable temple in which Mrs. Arnold worshipped than present herself at the elegant mansion on Fifth Avenue. The family spent the after part of the day in one of the most secluded nooks they could find in Central Park, and Mildred often looked back upon those hours as among the brightest in the shrouded past. Mr. Jocelyn gauged his essential stimulant so well that he was geniality itself; Belle was more exuberant than usual; Fred and Minnie rejoiced once more in flowers and trees and space to run. Mrs. Jocelyn's low, sweet laugh was heard again and again, for those who made her life were all around her, and they seemed happier than they had been for many a long, weary day. For a brief time at least the sun shone brightly through a rift in the clouds gathering around them.

Beyond the fact that Belle had found a place, little was said to Mr. Jocelyn, for the subject seemed very painful to him, and the young girl started off Monday morning in high spirits. The foreman met her in a curt, business-like way, and assigned her to her place, saying that the girl in charge of the goods would tell her about the marks, prices, etc. This girl and her companions received Belle very coldly, nor did they thaw out before her sunshine. As a matter both of duty and interest the young woman upon whom the task devolved explained all that was essential in a harsh, constrained voice, and the others ignored the newcomer during business hours. Belle paid no attention to them, but gave her whole mind to the details of her work, making rapid progress. "I'll have time for them by and by," she muttered, "and can manage them all the better when I know as much as they do."

She saw, too, that the foreman had his eye upon her and her companions, so she assumed the utmost humility and docility, but persisted in being told and retold all she wished to know. Since she observed that it was the foreman's eye and not good-will which constrained the cold, unsympathetic instruction received, she made no scruple in taxing the giver to the utmost.

When at last they went to the room in which they ate their lunch, the girls treated her as if she were a leper; but just to spite them she continued as serene as a May morning, either acting as if she did not see them or treating them as if they were the most charming young women she had ever met. She saw with delight that her course aggravated them and yet gave no cause for complaint.

As soon as permitted she hastened home, and was glad to lie down all the evening from sheer fatigue, but she made light of her weariness, concealed the treatment she had received from the girls, and the dejection it was beginning to occasion in spite of her courage; she even made the little home group laugh by her droll accounts of the day. Then they all petted and praised and made so much of her that her spirits rose to their usual height, and she said confidently, as she went to a long night's rest, "Don't you worry, little mother; I didn't expect to get broken in to my work without a backache."

The next day it was just the same, but Belle knew now what to charge for the ribbons, or, if she was not sure, the others were obliged, under the eye of the inexorable foreman--who for some reason gave this counter a great deal of attention--to tell her correctly, so she began to lie in wait for customers. Some came to her of their own accord, and they smiled back into her eager, smiling face.

In two or three instances her intent black eyes and manner seemed to attract attention and arrest the steps of those who had no intention of stopping. One case was so marked that the alert foreman drew near to note the result. An elderly lady, whose eye Belle had apparently caught by a look of such vivacity and interest that the woman almost felt that she had been spoken to, came to the girl, saying, "Well, my child, what have you that is pretty to-day?"

"Just what will please you, madam."

"You please me, whether your ribbons will or not. It's pleasant for a customer to be looked at as if she were not a nuisance," she added significantly, and in a tone that Belle's companions, with their cold, impassive faces, could not fail to hear. "You may pick out something nice for one of my little granddaughters."

Dimpling with smiles and pleasure, Belle obeyed. Feeling that the eye of the arbiter of their fates was upon them, the young women near might have been statues in their rigid attitudes. Only the hot blood mounting to their faces betrayed their anger. There was evidently something wrong at the ribbon counter--something repressed, a smouldering and increasing indignation, a suggestion of rebellion. So the foreman evidently thought, from his frequent appearances; so the floor-walker clearly surmised, for with imperious glances and words he held each one sternly to her duty. Belle was smiling and working in the midst of a gathering storm, and she was becoming conscious of it. So far from cowering, her indignation was fast rising, and there was an ominous glow kindling in her dark eyes. Their seemingly unwarranted hostility and jealousy were beginning to incense her. She believed she had as much right there as they had, and she resolved to maintain her right. Catching an ireful glance from the girl in charge of the counter, she returned it with interest. Even this spark came very near kindling the repressed fires into an open flame, regardless of consequences. The bread of these girls was at stake, but women are not calculating when their feelings are deeply disturbed.

At last, just as the wretched afternoon was ending, and preparations to close were in progress, a pale, thin girl, with a strange and rather reckless look, came in, and, sitting down before Belle, fixed her gaunt eyes upon her.

"So you were heartless enough to take my place away from me?" she said slowly, after a moment.

"I don't know what you mean," answered Belle indignantly.

"Yes, you do know what she means, you little black snake in the grass," whispered one of the girls in her ear while pretending to put a box upon the shelf.

Belle whirled upon her with such a vivid and instantaneous flash of anger that the girl stepped back precipitately and dropped the box.

Just at this moment Mr. Schriven, in the act of departure, came out of his office and witnessed the whole scene. He stopped and smiled broadly. The foreman had informed him from time to time of the little "comedy" progressing at the ribbon counter, and the two potentates felt quite indebted to Belle for a sensation in the dullest of dull seasons, especially at the girl's conduct was wholly in the line of their wishes, regulations, and interests. "She's as plucky as a terrier," the echo of his chief had said, "and the time will come when she'll sell more goods than any two girls in the store. You made a ten-strike in effecting that exchange."

It was rich sport for them to see her fiery spirit arousing and yet defying the intense and ill-concealed hostility of her companions--a hostility, too, that was extending beyond the ribbon counter, and had been manifesting itself by whispering, significant nods, and black looks toward the poor child all the afternoon; but so far from shrinking before this concentration of ill-will Belle had only grown more indignant, more openly resentful, and unable to maintain her resolute and tantalizing serenity.

Feeling that it would compromise his dignity and authority even to appear to notice what was going forward, Mr. Schriven wrapped himself in his greatness and passed down the shop, sweeping the excited group--that was restrained for the moment by his presence--with a cold, nonchalant glance, from which, however, nothing escaped. When in the street his characteristic smile reappeared.

"By the Lord Harry!" he muttered, "if she isn't the gamiest bit of flesh and blood that I've seen in a long time! She's worth looking after."

Since his eye and restraining presence, however, were now absent from the store, there would have been no small tumult at the ribbon counter had not Belle by her straight-forward, fearless manner brought things to a speedy issue. There were now no customers in the shop, and the discipline of the day was practically over, therefore the girl on whom Belle had turned so passionately, having reached a safe distance, said, outspokenly, "I'll say it now, so all can hear, even if I lose my place for it. You are a mean, p'ismis little black snake in the grass. We all know how you got this girl out of the place she's had for years, and I want you to understand that if you stay you'll have a hot time of it."

"And I want you to understand that if I've a right to stay, I will stay," cried Belle, in a ringing voice. "I'm not afraid of you, nor a thousand like you. Either you're all cats to treat a young girl as you've treated me the last two days, or else there's something that I don't understand. But I' m going to understand it here and now. You hold your tongue, and let this girl speak who says I've taken her place. She's the one I'm to deal with. But first let me say how I got this place--I asked for it. That's the whole story, and I didn't know I was taking it from any one else."

Belle's courageous and truth-stamped manner began to create a diversion in her favor, and all near listened with her to what the dismissed girl might say. The latter did not in the least respond to Belle's energy, but after a long, weary sigh she began, without raising her head from her hand as she sat leaning on the counter, "Whether you're right or wrong, I'm too badly used up to quarrel with you or to answer in any such gunpowdery fashion. I'm dead beat, but I thought I'd like to come in and see you all once more, and my old place, and who was standing in it. You are at the beginning, my pert one. If I was as young and strong as you I wouldn't come and stand here."

"How is your mother?" asked the girl in charge of the counter.

"She's dying, starving," was the reply, in the same dreary, apathetic tone, and black looks were again directed toward Belle.

She heeded them not, however. For a moment her eyes dilated with horror, then she sprang to the girl, and taking her hands exclaimed, "Good God! What do you mean? Let me go home with you."

The girl looked at her steadfastly, and then said, "Yes, come home with me. That's the best way to understand it all."

"We'll bring your mother something by and by," said two or three of the girls as the poor creature rose slowly to follow Belle, who was ready instantly, and whose course compelled a suspension of judgment on the part of those even the most prejudiced against her.