Chapter XIX. Belle Jars the "System"
 

Some orthodox divines would have given Clara a version of the story of life quite different from that which she received from Mildred. Many divines, not orthodox, would have made the divergence much wider. The poor girl, so bruised in spirit and broken in heart, was not ready for a system of theology or for the doctrine of evolution; and if any one had begun to teach the inherent nobleness and self-correcting power of humanity, she would have shown him the door, feeble as she was. But when Mildred assured her that if Christ were in the city, as He had been in Capernaum, He would climb the steep, dark stairs to her attic room and say to her, "Daughter, be of good comfort"--when she was told that Holy Writ declared that He was the "same yesterday, to-day, and forever"--her heart became tender and contrite, and therefore ready for a Presence that is still "seeking that which was lost."

Men may create philosophies, they may turn the Gospel itself into a cold abstraction, but the practical truth remains that the Christ who saves, comforts, and lifts the intolerable burden of sorrow or of sin, comes now as of old--comes as a living, loving, personal presence, human in sympathy, divine in power. As Mildred had said, our need and our consciousness of it form our strongest claim upon Him and the best preparation for Him.

Clara was proving the truth of her words. Life could never be to her again merely a bitter, sullen struggle for bread. A great hope was dawning, and though but a few rays yet quivered through the darkness, they were the earnest of a fuller light.

Before midnight Mr. Jocelyn joined the watchers, and seated himself unobtrusively in a dusky corner of the room. Clara crouched on the floor beside her mother, her head resting on the bed, and her hand clasping the thin fingers of the dying woman. She insisted on doing everything the poor creature required, which was but little, for it seemed that life would waver out almost imperceptibly. Mildred sat at the foot of the bed, where her father could see her pure profile in the gloom. To his opium-kindled imagination it seemed to have a radiance of its own, and to grow more and more luminous until, in its beauty and light, it became like the countenance of an accusing angel; then it began to recede until it appeared infinitely far away. "Millie," he called, in deep apprehension.

"What is it, papa?" she asked, springing to his side and putting her hand on his shoulder.

"Oh!" he said, shudderingly. "I had such a bad dream! You seemed fading away from me, till I could no longer see your face. It was so horribly real!"

She came and sat beside him, and held his hand in both of hers. "That's right," he remarked; "now my dreams will be pleasant."

"You didn't seem to be asleep, papa," said the girl, in some surprise; "indeed, you seemed looking at me fixedly."

"Then I must have been asleep with my eyes open," he answered with a trace of embarrassment.

"Poor papa, you are tired, and it's very, very kind of you to come and stay with me, but I wasn't afraid. Clara says it's a respectable house, and the people, though very poor, are quiet and well behaved. Now that you have seen that we are safe, please go home and rest," and she coaxed until he complied, more from fear that he would betray himself than from any other motive.

In the deep hush that falls on even a great city before the early life of the next day begins, Mrs. Bute opened her eyes and called, "Clara!"

"Right here, momsy, dear, holding your hand."

"It's strange--I can't see you--I feel so much better, too--sort of rested. It does--seem now--as if I--might get--a little rest. Don't wake me--child--to give me--anything--and rest yourself."

She smiled faintly as she closed her eyes, and very soon Clara could never wake her again. Mildred took the head of the orphan into her lap, and the poor girl at last sobbed herself to sleep.

We will not attempt to follow Mildred's thoughts as she tried to keep up through the long hours. The murmured words, "I would watch more patiently over Vinton Arnold, did not his proud mother stand between us," suggests the character of some of them. At last, when she was faint from weariness, she heard steps coming up the stairs, and her mother entered, followed by Mrs. Wheaton.

"My dear, brave child, this is too much for you. I'd rather it had been myself a thousand times," Mrs. Jocelyn exclaimed.

"It's all right, mamma, but the sight of you and good Mrs. Wheaton is more welcome than I can tell you, for I was getting very lonely and tired."

"I'll stay now hand tend ter heverything," said Mrs. Wheaton, with a stout, cheery kindness that could not be disguised even in her whisper; but Clara awoke with a start and said, "What is it, momsy?"

Then she sprang up, and after a brief glance at her mother threw herself with a long, low cry on the lifeless form.

"Leave hall ter me," said Mrs. Wheaton decidedly, "hand take Miss Jocelyn 'ome, for this'll be too much for 'er."

"Ah, mamma dear," sobbed Mildred, "my heart would be broken indeed if that were you."

"Millie, if you love me, come home at once," Mrs. Jocelyn urged. It was quite light when they gained the street, and after reaching home Mildred was given a warm cup of tea, and left to sleep until late in the day. While she slept, however, there occurred some rather stirring scenes.

Belle, too, slept rather late, but a portentous gloom came into her eyes when told that Mrs. Bute was dead. She did not say very much, but her young face grew older and very resolute while she hastily ate her breakfast. Then she carried something nice to Clara, and found that Mrs. Wheaton had left, a neighbor from the tall tenement having taken her place.

Belle looked at the bereaved girl with half-fearful eyes as if she expected reproaches, and when Clara kissed her in greeting she said "Don't" so sharply as to excite surprise.

"Belle," said Clara gently, "mother's at rest."

"That's more than I am," muttered the girl. "Oh, Clara, I didn't mean to bring all this trouble on you. That man just caught me in a trap."

"Belle, Belle! why do you blame yourself for all this? It would have come just the same, and probably just as soon, and if it hadn't been for you I'd been alone, with no friends and no hope."

"Oh, don't talk to me!" Belle cried; "your mother might have been alive if I hadn't taken your place. I want to see her."

Clara turned back the covering, and the young girl looked at the dead face with a stern, frowning brow.

"Starved!" she muttered. "I understand why they all looked so black at me now; but why couldn't some one have told me? He shall know the truth for once; he's more to blame than I," and she abruptly departed.

Very little later the foreman of the shop on Sixth Avenue was astonished to see her passing hastily toward the private office, regardless of the looks of surprise and interest turned toward her on every side, for the events of the night had been very generally whispered around.

"Mr. Schriven's engaged," he said sharply. "What do you want? Why are you not in your place?"

"I am in my place, but you are not. Stand aside, for I will see Mr. Schriven at once."

"I tell you some one is with him."

"I don't care if the king's with him," and darting on one side she reached the office door, and knocked so sharply that the ireful potentate within sprang up himself to see who the inconsiderate intruder was.

"Oh, it's you," he said, half inclined to laugh in spite of his anger. "I thought I said that, if I employed you, you were not to come to my office again unless I sent for you?"

"I'm not in your employ."

"Indeed! How's that?" he asked very sharply.

"That is just what I've come to explain," was the unflinching reply.

"By-by," remarked Mr. Schriven's visitor maliciously; "I see you are to be interviewed."

"Very briefly, I assure you. Good-morning. Now, miss, I give you about one minute to transact your business with me, then the cashier will pay you for two days' work."

"No, sir, he will not. Do you think I'd take money stained with blood?"

"What do you mean? What kind of a girl are you anyway?"

"I'm an honest girl; I believe in God and the devil--I believe in them both too well to have anything more to do with you unless you can prove you didn't know any more than I did. You think to frighten me with black looks, but I've just come from a greater presence than yours--the presence of one who'll soon be your master--Death, and death for which you are responsible."

"Good God! what do you mean?"

"What did you mean by turning off without a word a poor girl--one who for years had done her best for you? What did you mean by making a place for me in that way? Her mother died last night--starved--and I'd have you know that I'd have starved before I'd have taken her place had I known what I know now. Go look at your work at the top of a tenement-house! There's more flesh on your arm than on that dead woman's body, and the poor girl herself hadn't eaten anything for two days when she came here last night. She'd have died, too, if sister Millie hadn't stayed with her last night. I hope you didn't know any more than I did. If you did you've got to settle with God and the devil before you're through with this kind of business."

The man was frightened, for he had meant no deliberate cruelty. He was only practicing the sound political economy of obtaining the most for the least, but in the words and stern face of the child he saw how his act must appear to a mind unwarped by interest and unhardened by selfish years. Moreover, he could not bluster in the presence of death, and the thought that his greed had caused it chilled his heart with a sudden dread. He caught at the extenuation her words suggested, and said gravely, "You are right; I did not know. I would send food from my own table rather than any one should go hungry. I knew nothing about this girl, and no one has told me of her need until this moment. A man at the head of a great business cannot look after details. The best he can do is to manage his business on business principles. To prove that I'm sincere, I'll take the girl back again at her old wages, although I do not need her."

The man lied in giving a false impression. It was true that he did not single out individuals as objects of intentional cruelty, but his system was hard and remorseless, and crushed like the wheels of Juggernaut, and he purposely shut his eyes to all questions and consequences save those of profit and loss. When compelled to face, through Belle's eyes, an instance of the practical outcome of his system, he shuddered and trembled, for the moment, and was inclined to ease his conscience by a little ostentatious kindness, especially as the facts in the case bade fair to become known. Men who, unlike Belle, have little fear of God or the devil, do fear public opinion. The girl interpreted him, however, after her own warm, guileless heart, and in strong revulsion of feeling said, tearfully, "Please forgive me, sir, for speaking as I have. I've done you wrong, and I acknowledge it frankly, but I was almost beside myself. We didn't either of us mean them any harm."

The man could not repress a smile at Belle's association of herself with him in the guilt of the affair. In fact, he rather liked the idea, for it made his own part seem quite venial after all--an error of ignorance like that of the child's--so he said kindly, "Indeed, we did not, and now we'll make amends. You go and see what is needed and let me know, and to-morrow, if you wish, you can take your own place and not any one's else. You are a smart, good-hearted girl, and by and by I can give you better wages."

"I did you wrong, sir," repeated Belle remorsefully, "and now that you will take Clara back, I'd work for you almost for nothing. When and where shall I come?" she added humbly; "I don't wish to seem rude any more."

"Come to my house this evening," and he gave her his number.

"I beg your pardon for what I said. Good-by, sir," and with tearful eyes and downcast face she went to the street, without a glance on either side.

The man sat for a few moments with a heavily contracting brow. At last he stretched out his hand and sighed, "I'd give all there is in this store if my heart was like that girl's, but here I am at this hour engaged in a transaction which is the devil's own bargain, and with a firm that can't help itself because it is in my power. Hang it all! business is business; I'll lose a cool thousand unless I carry it through as I've begun." He seized his pen and carried it through.

Belle, attended by her father, was not in the least abashed by the elegance of Mr. Schriven's parlor, as he had rather hoped she would be, but he was much impressed by Mr. Jocelyn's fine appearance and courtly bearing. "No wonder the girl's course has been peculiar," he thought. "She comes from no common stock. If I've ever seen a Southern gentleman, her father's one, and her plump little body is full of hot Southern blood. She's a thoroughbred, and that accounts for her smartness and fearlessness. Where other girls would whine and toady to your face, and be sly and catlike behind your back, she'd look you in the eyes and say all she meant point-blank. I'm glad indeed things are taking their present course, for these people could make any man trouble," and he treated his guests very suavely.

Belle soon told her story in a straightforward manner. One of her generous projects was to have a rather grand funeral, with all the girls in the shop attending in a procession. "What a child she is!" thought Mr. Schriven, with difficulty repressing a laugh, but he proceeded very gravely to induce the girl to take his own practical view.

"In the first place, my child," he said, "that woman died of consumption--she didn't starve at all."

"I think she died the sooner," Belle faltered.

"Possibly. If so, she was the sooner out of her misery. At any rate we are not to blame, since, as you have said, we didn't know. Now a funeral, such as you suggest, would be very costly, and would do no one any good. It would scarcely be in good taste, for, considering the poor woman's circumstances, it would be ostentatious."

"Belle, Mr. Schriven is right," said her father, in a tone of quiet authority.

"Let us rather consider the need of the daughter," Mr. Schriven resumed. "You say she is worn and weak from watching and work. A quarter of the money that a funeral would cost would give her two or three weeks in the country. And now," he concluded impressively--his conscience needed a little soothing, and his purse was plethoric with the thousand dollars wrung from those who had the misfortune to be in his power--"I will pay her board at some quiet farmhouse for three weeks, and then she'll come back fresh and strong to her old place."

Belle's eyes filled with tears of gladness. "You are right, sir, and you are very kind and generous. I know just the place for her to go--the people we've been with all summer. They are kind, and will do everything for her, and take away her strange feeling at once. Oh, I'm so glad it's all ending so much better than I feared! I thought this morning I could never be happy again, but you've made all seem so different and hopeful. I thank you, sir, over and over, and I'll do my best now at the store, and be respectful to every one."

The man was touched. The warm, reflected glow of the girl's heart softened for a moment his own icy organ, and his eyes grew moist momentarily. "You are a good child," he said. "Here are thirty-five dollars for your friend, for you've been a friend to her indeed. Most girls would have let them starve for all they cared. Now send the girl off to the country, and as soon as I can I'll raise your wages to five dollars. I'd do it now, only the others would talk and say it wasn't customary to pay beginners so highly. Mr. Jocelyn, I congratulate you on the possession of such a daughter, and I sincerely hope you may soon retrieve your fortunes and regain the position to which I see that you both naturally belong," and he bowed them out with a politeness and respect that were not by any means assumed.

Belle almost danced home by her father's side, so great was the rebound of her depressed feelings. Thirty-five dollars! How much that would do for poor Clara! Millie would help her make up her mourning, and she would have nothing to pay for but the material. She would write to Mrs. Atwood that very night, and to Roger, telling him he must be kind to Clara, and take her out to drive. Her heart fairly bubbled over with plans and projects for the girl whose "place she had taken."

The poor child had scarcely begun her letter to Mrs. Atwood before her head drooped, and Mildred said, "Tell me what to say, Belle, and I'll write it all. You've done you part to-day, and done it well."

"That's good of you, Millie. When I get sleepy it's no use to try to do anything. I'd go to sleep if the house was on fire. But you won't write to Roger, I'm afraid."

"No. If he must be written to, you must do that."

"Well, I will to-morrow. He'll do Clara more good than all the rest."

Our story passes hastily over the scenes that followed. A brief service was held over Mrs. Bute's remains by a city missionary, known to Mrs. Wheaton, who was present with Mrs. Jocelyn, Belle, and Mildred. Three or four neighbors from the tenement lent chairs and came in also. The girls at the ribbon counter clubbed together and sent an anchor of white flowers, and at the hour of the funeral they looked grave and were quiet in manner, thus taking part in the solemnity in the only way they could. In due time the city department upon which the duty devolved sent the "dead wagon"; the morsel of human clay was returned to its kindred dust in "Potter's Field," a public cemetery on Hart's Island, in which are interred all who die in the city and whose friends are unable to pay for a grave or a burial plot. Clara, however, had not the pain of seeing her mother placed in the repulsive red box furnished by the department, for Mr. Jocelyn sent a plain but tasteful coffin, with the woman's age and name inscribed upon it.

Mrs. Wheaton went with the girl to the grave, and then brought her to her own little nook in the old mansion, for Clara had said she had no relatives she knew anything about except a few on her father's side, and she had rather go to a station-house than to them. "Don't talk habout station 'ouses till yer can see vat I kin do for yer," the good woman had said in her hearty way, and she did play the good Samaritan so well, and poured the "oil and wine" of kindness into the poor creature's wounds so effectually, that she began to change for the better daily.

Mildred redeemed Belle's promise, and between them all they soon fitted Clara for her trip to the country. By the time Mrs. Atwood's reply reached Mildred, and Roger's hearty answer came back in response to Belle's characteristic note, she was ready to go. "There's a man's hand for you," cried Belle exultantly as she exhibited Roger's bold chirography. "It's a hand that can be depended upon, strong and ready."

Mildred smiled as she replied, "You're welcome to it, Belle."

"You needn't smile so placidly," she retorted, with an ominous nod. "We are not through with Roger Atwood yet."

Perhaps quotations from two letters written by Clara to Mildred and Belle, and received a week later, will form a satisfactory ending to this chapter. Clara had been taught to read and write in the public schools of the city, and but little more. In later years she had occasionally found opportunity to attend some of the night schools established for those whose only leisure came after the busy day was over, and so had learned to use her pen with tolerable correctness. In waiting upon the educated people who frequented the shop she had caught, with the aptness of an American girl, a very fair power of expressing herself in speech. Writing a letter, however, was a formidable affair, in which she had scarcely any experience. Her missives, therefore, were very simple, and somewhat defective in outward form, but they suggested some interesting facts.

"DEAR MILLIE (ran the first): I'm very sad and hapy. The Countrys like heven. All are so kind. Even the dog dosen't grole at me, and Mr. Roger says that's queer for he groles at everybody. I feel so much better, I don't know myself. I feel like takin depe breths of air all the time and I never tasted such milk. Every glass puts life in me. If I can get work up here I'll never go back to town and stand all day again. The girls up here have a chance to live--they haven't any chance at all in a store. The strongest will brake down and then they are good for nothing. I wish Belle could do something else. I wish thousands would go in the country and do work that would make us look like Susan. Mrs. Atwood thinks she can find me a place with kind people, where I'll be treted almost like one of the family. Anyway I've had enough of standing and bad air and starving and I don't see why working in a farmhouse ain't just as ladylike as wating on folks with the floorwalker awatchin you like a slave driver. Standing all day is deth to most girls and about the hardest deth they can die. I feel as if I could live to be a hundred up here.

"Millie, dear, I read the Bible you gave me and I pray for you and Belle every night and morning and He answers. I know it. I love you very much and I've good reason. Good by. CLARA BUTE."

Her letter to Belle was more descriptive of her daily life, of the kindness she received on every hand. One brief extract from it will suffice:

"I've got well acquainted with Roger," she wrote. "He's easy to get acquainted with. Now I think of it though he says little or nothing about himself but he leads me to talk and tell about you all in a way that surprises me. If his interest was prying I'm sure I wouldn't have told him anything. I know well now it isn't. Does Millie know how he feels toward her? I saw it all last night. I was telling him about my past life and how poor and forlorn we had been and how I had told Millie all about it and then how Millie had just treted me as if I were as good as she was. As I talked he became so white I thought he'd faint. Suddenly he burst out despairingly, 'I hoped she was proud but she isn't--I could overcome pride. But what can I do when I'm just detested? There, I've made a fool of myself,' he said savagelike after a moment, and he hurried away. For the last two days he's been so quiet and looked so stern and sad that his family don't know what to make of him, but I know what's the matter, and I feel sorry for him, for he seems to me more like a man than any of the young fellows I've seen in town. Don't tell Millie for I don't want to even seem to meddle."

But Belle had no gift of reticence, and she not only showed her sister the letter, but overwhelmed her with reproaches for her "heartless treatment of Roger." As a natural result Mildred was only more irritated and prejudiced against the young man than ever.

"You are all absurdly unreasonable," she cried. "What have I ever done to make him turn white or red, or to 'burst out despairingly,' and all that kind of sentimental nonsense? Because he is lackadaisical and is experiencing strange, vague emotions, must I be afflicted in like manner? Must I break faith with one I do love and do violence to my own feelings, just because this farmer wants me to? You know what's the matter with him--Clara saw at a glance--and the course I'm taking is the only way to cure him. All his talk about friendship is transparent folly. If I took your advice it would make him only more and more infatuated; and now I haven't it on my conscience that I gave him one bit of encouragement. I'm sorry for him, of course. I shall be more sorry for his mother and sister if he is guilty of the folly of leaving home. If, instead of doing his duty by them, he comes mooning after me here, when he knows it is of no use, I shall lose my respect for him utterly." There seemed so much downright common-sense in this view of the affair that even Belle found no words in reply. Her reason took Mildred's part, but her warm little heart led her to shake her head ominously at her sister, and then sleepily she sought the rest her long, tiresome day required.