Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXVIII. New York's Humanity
Mrs. Jocelyn drooped in her husband's absence, for every year had increased her sense of dependence. She felt somewhat like one who is drifting on a wreck. If the sea would only remain calm, all might be well; but the sea never is at rest very long, and if storms, dangers, and emergencies occurred what would she do?
Each day that passed without word from her husband grew longer, and when at last a letter came it was vague and unsatisfactory. He hoped he was better; he hoped to find a foothold; and then came again several days of silence which were almost as oppressive to Mildred as to herself.
Meanwhile their funds were failing fast, and they both felt that they ought not to sell anything else for mere living expenses. More critical emergencies might arise and find them destitute. If Mr. Jocelyn should become seriously ill in the South, they must be in a position to have him cared for and brought home. Mildred with extreme reluctance was compelled to face the necessity of giving up her studies so that she might earn something at once. She had about decided to reveal her troubles to Miss Wetheridge, when a hasty note from her friend swept away all immediate chance of aid in that direction. "The gentleman to whom I was soon to be married," she wrote, "has not been strong for a year past, and a few days since he was taken with a hemorrhage from his lungs. His physician ordered him to go immediately to Nassau. In accordance with our mutual wishes we were married quietly in the presence of a few relatives, and by the time this note reaches you we shall be on our way to the South. My heart is burdened with anxiety, and my hourly prayer is that God will spare the life of one so dear to me. I wish I could see you before I sail, but it is impossible. I have had to leave almost everything undone. Write me often."
This note threw Mildred on her own resources. She felt that Mr. Wentworth could do little for her beyond certifying to her character, for he was the pastor of a congregation of which a large proportion were as poor as herself. There was naught to do but go to work like the others in uncomplaining silence and earn her bread.
One evening she learned from Belle that the increased trade incident to the approaching holiday season had rendered more help necessary, and that one large shop on Sixth Avenue had already made known this need. When the doors opened the following morning, Mildred was among the crowd of applicants, and her appearance was so much in her favor that she was engaged at once on a salary of six dollars a week. Only immediate necessity could have induced her to take this step, for she justly doubted her ability to endure the strain of standing continuously. The shop, however, was full of girls as frail-looking as herself, and it was the only certainty of support within her reach. Her mother cried bitterly over the step, and she, also, could not hide a few tears, brave as she tried to be; but she said resolutely, "I'm no better than hundreds of others, and if they can endure it I can and will, for a while at least."
The first day was one that she never forgot. The bright sun and clear, bracing atmosphere brought out crowds of shoppers, but the air of the store soon became vitiated, hot, and lifeless. In this close, stifling place she was compelled to stand, elbowed by other girls who were strangers to her, and too busy or too indifferent to aid materially her inexperienced efforts to learn her duties. She made blunders, for which she was scolded; she grew bewildered and faint, and when the few moments of nooning came she could not eat the lunch her mother had prepared. If she could only have had a cup of strong coffee she might have got through the day; but her employers were much too thrifty to furnish such a luxury, and she was too tired, and the time allotted her much too brief to permit its quest. Therefore she tried to rest a little from the intolerable fatigue and pain of standing, and to collect her thoughts.
The afternoon crush of customers was greater even than that which had crowded the counters in the morning, and she grew more and more bewildered under the confused fire of questions and orders. If any one had had the time or heart to observe, there would have been seen in her eyes the pathetic, fearful look of some timid creature of the woods when harried and driven to bay by hounds.
Suddenly everything grew black before her eyes; the piled-up goods, the chattering throng, faded, and she sank to the floor--there was no room for her to fall.
When she revived she found that she had been carried to the cloak-room, in which the girls ate their lunch, and that a woman was kneeling beside her applying restoratives. In a few moments one of the managers looked in and asked, in an off-hand way, "How is she getting on?"
With the instinct of self-preservation Mildred sat up, and pleaded, "Indeed, sir, I'm better. It was all so strange--the air was close. I beg of you not to discharge me. I will learn soon."
"Oh, don't be so worried," the man replied good-naturedly. "It's nothing new to have a girl faint on the first day. You'll get used to it by and by like the rest. Will you be well enough to walk home, or shall I have a carriage ordered?"
"Please don't get a carriage. It would frighten mamma terribly, and she would not let me come back, and I must come, for we need every penny I can earn."
"Well, now, that's sensible, and you save the carriage hire also. You're a fine-looking, plucky girl, and I'll give you a place at the lace counter, near the door, where the air is better and the work lighter (and where her pretty face will do us no harm," he added mentally).
"You are very kind, sir, and I can't tell you how much I thank you."
"All right, you'll get into training and do as well as the best, so don't be discouraged," and the man had the grace or business thrift--probably a blending of both--to send her a cup of coffee.
She was then left to rest, and go home when she felt like it. As early as she dared without exciting her mother's suspicions, she crept away, almost as the wounded slowly and painfully leave a field of battle. Her temples still throbbed; in all her body there was a slight muscular tremor, or beating sensation, and her step faltered from weakness. To her delicate organization, already reduced by anxiety, sedentary life, and prolonged mental effort, the strain and nervous shock of that day's experiences had been severe indeed.
To hide the truth from her despondent mother was now her chief hope and aim. Her fatigue she would not attempt to disguise, for that would be unnatural. It was with difficulty she climbed the one flight of stairs that led to their room, but her wan face was smiling as she pushed open the door and kissed her mother in greeting. Then throwing herself on the lounge she cried gayly, "Come, little mother, give me an old maid's panacea for every ill of life--a cup of strong tea."
"Millie," cried Mrs. Jocelyn, bending over her with moist eyes, "you look pale and gone--like--"
"Oh no, mamma, I'm here--a good hundred and ten pounds of me, more or less."
"But how did you get through the day?"
"You will hardly believe it," was the reassuring reply; "I've been promoted already from work that was hard and coarse to the lace counter, which is near the door, where one can breathe a little pure air. If the goods were as second-hand as the air they would not have a customer. But come, mamma dear, I'm too tired to talk, and would rather eat, and especially drink. These surely are good symptoms."
"Millie, you are a soldier, as we used to say during the war," said Mrs. Jocelyn, hastening the preparations for supper; "but you cannot deceive a mother's eyes. You are more exhausted than you even realize yourself. Oh, I do wish there was some other way. I'd give all the world if I had Mrs. Wheaton's stout red arms, for I'd rather wash all day and half the night than see you and Belle so burdened early in life."
"I wouldn't have my beautiful mamma changed even by one gray hair," was the very natural response.
Belle nearly rendered futile all of Mildred's efforts to hide the worst from her mother; for, after her duties were over, she went eagerly to the shop where she expected to find her sister. Having learned that Miss Jocelyn had fainted and had gone home some time in the afternoon, she sped almost breathlessly after her, and burst into the room with the words, "Millie! Millie!"
Fortunately Mrs. Jocelyn was busy over the stove at the moment and did not see Mildred's strong cautionary gesture; but Belle's perceptions were almost instantaneous, and with one significant glance of her dark eyes she entered into the loving conspiracy.
"What is it, Belle?" was Mrs. Jocelyn's anxious query.
"I'm wild to know how Millie has got on the first day, and whether she has a big fight on her hands as I had. If she has, I declare war, too, against all the powers and principalities--not of the air, for there wasn't a breath of it in our store to-day. We've had a crush, and I'm half dead from trying to do two days' work in one. Ten minutes for lunch. Scores of cross customers all wanting to be waited on at once, and the floor-walkers flying around like hens bereft of heads, which, after all, are never of much use to either. In spite of all, here we are, mamma, ready for a cup of your good tea and other fixin's. Now, Millie, it's your turn. I've let off enough steam to be safe till after supper. Have you made cruel enemies to-day, from whom you desire my protection?"
"No, Belle," said Mildred, laughing; "I haven't your force and brilliancy, and have made but a humdrum beginning. I was so stupid at one counter that they transferred me to another, and I'm glad of it, for laces are pretty, and taking care of them wouldn't seem like drudgery at all. Best of all, it's near the door, and every customer will give me a sustaining breath."
"Millie is standing it capitally for a beginner," Belle remarked, with the air of a veteran, as Mildred eagerly drank her cup of tea and asked for more. "I was so tired the first night that it seemed as if I could scarcely swallow a mouthful."
Thus they carried out the little ruse, careful not to exaggerate, for Mrs. Jocelyn's intuitions were quick.
As it was she looked at her child with many misgivings, but she tried for their sakes to be cheerful, and praised the courage and spirit of both the girls, assuring them that they showed their true Southern blood, and that they reminded her of their father when, during his brief visits, he talked over the long, hard campaigns.
At last they were in the privacy of their own room, and Mildred, as if she were the weaker and younger, buried her face on her sister's shoulder and sobbed despairingly, "Oh, Belle, you are the stronger. I fear I can't stand it at all. I've suffered more to-day than in all my life, and my feet and back still ache--oh, I can't tell you."
The child soothed and comforted her, and said she had suffered just the same at first, and often still she felt that if she could not sit down for a few moments she would drop down; "but there, Millie," she concluded, with the best philosophy the case admitted of, "you get used to it gradually--you can get used to anything."
"I don't believe I can," was the dejected reply, "and yet I must, if we would have shelter and bread. Oh that we might hear some good news from papa! Why don't he write oftener? I fear it is because he has nothing cheering to tell us."
The next morning, in spite of all effort, Mildred was too ill and lame to rise, but she instructed Belie to assure her employer that she would come the following day.
Mrs. Jocelyn tried hard to persuade her not to go back at all, and at last Mildred grew a little stern and said emphatically, "Please say no more, mamma. We can afford none of this weak nonsense. I must earn my bread, as do other girls, and have no time to lose."
The following day, fortunately, was so stormy that customers were scattering, and Mildred had a chance to gain an idea of her duties and to rest a little from time to time, for out of consideration of the facts that she had been ill and was a beginner, she was permitted to sit down occasionally. She was so attractive in appearance, and had brought such an excellent certificate of character, that the proprietors were inclined to be lenient, and smooth a little the harsh and thorny path of a beginner.
And so the weary days dragged on, and she slowly acquired the power to stand as did the others. They were days, however, which ended in a close approach to agony, from which the nights brought but slight and temporary relief, for so great was the pain in her feet and back that she would moan even in her sleep. Her sufferings were scarcely less than at first, but, as Belle said, she was "getting used" to them.
It is a well-known fact that many would persist in living in spite of all the tortures of the Inquisition. I wonder if the old-time inquisitors and their "familiars" were ingenious enough to compel delicate women to stand and talk all day, and sometimes part of the night?
In very truth, the poor girl was earning her bread by torture, and she soon found that she had many companions in suffering who, with woman's capacity for the patient endurance of pain, made the best of their lot, often trying to forget themselves in jests, laughter, and gossip, planning, meanwhile, in odd moments, for some snatch at the few pleasures that their brief evenings permitted--pleasures, too often, in which Mildred could or would take no part. While her gentleness and courtesy to all gave no cause for hostility, her air of quiet aloofness and her recognized superiority prevented her from becoming a favorite, nor did the many admiring looks and even open advances that she received from the young men in the store, and occasionally from customers, add to her popularity. The male clerks soon found, however, that beyond the line warranted by their mutual duties she was utterly unapproachable, and not a few of them united in the view held by the girls, that she was "stuck up"; but since she was not in the least above her business, no one could complain openly.
As one long, exceedingly busy and weary day was drawing to a close, however, she received a sharp reprimand. A gentleman had agreed to meet his wife at the shop as he came up town, in order that they might together make provision for Christmas. The lady having nearly accomplished her round, and having proved herself a liberal purchaser, she was naturally accompanied toward the door by a very amiable foreman, who was profuse in his thanks. Suddenly it occurred to her that she would look at the laces, and she approached Mildred, who, in a momentary respite, was leaning back against the shelves with closed eyes, weary beyond all words of description.
"Will you please wake that young woman up," the lady remarked, a little sharply.
This the foreman did, in a way that brought what little blood the poor girl had left into her face. The shopper sat down on the plush seat before the counter, and was soon absorbed in the enticing wares, while her husband stood beside her and stole sidelong glances at the weary but beautiful face of the saleswoman.
"Jupiter Ammon," he soliloquized mentally, "but she is pretty! If that flush would only last, she'd be beautiful; but she's too pale and fagged for that--out to a ball last night, I imagine. She don't even notice that a man's admiring her--proof, indeed, that she must have danced till near morning, if not worse. What lives these girls lead, if half the stories are true! I'd like to see that one rested, fresh, and becomingly dressed. She'd make a sensation in a Fifth Avenue drawing-room if she had the sense to keep her mouth shut, and not show her ignorance and underbreeding."
But he was growing impatient, and at last said, "Oh, come, my dear, you've bought enough to break me already. We'll be late for dinner."
The lady rose reluctantly, and remarked, "Well, I think I'll come and look at these another day," and they were bowed out of the door.
"You must be more alert," said the foreman, imperatively, to Mildred. "These people are among the best and wealthiest in town."
"I'll try," was the meek answer.
The gentleman had hardly reached the sidewalk, however, before all his chivalry and indignation were aroused. Under the press of Christmas times a drayman had overloaded his cart, and the horse was protesting in his dumb way by refusing to budge an inch; meanwhile the owner proved himself scarcely equal to the animal he drove by furious blows and curses, which were made all the more reckless by his recent indulgence in liquor.
The poor beast soon found many champions, and foremost among them was the critic of the weary shop-girl, who had suffered more that day than the horse was capable of suffering in his lifetime. The distinguished citizen, justly irate, I grant, sent his wife home in their carriage, and declared that he would neither eat nor sleep until he had seen the brute--the drayman, not the horse--arrested and looked up, and he kept his word.
Much later, the wronged and tortured human creature of whom he had surmised evil, and on whom he had bestowed at best only a little cynical admiration, crept home with steps that faltered, burdened with a heaviness of heart and a weariness of body which could be measured only by the pitiful eye of Him who carries the world's sins and sorrows.
The rescued horse munched his oats in stolid tranquillity, the woman raised to heaven her eyes, beneath which were dark, dark lines, and murmured, "O God, how long?"