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- Without a Home - 50/94 -
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?"
THE BEATITUDES OF OPIUM
At least once each week Roger took Belle to some evening entertainment, selecting places that, while innocent, were in keeping with their years--full of color, life, and interest. The young girl improved at once, as the result of this moderate gratification of a craving that was as proper as it was natural. The sense of being restricted and arbitrarily shut away from the pleasures belonging to her youth no longer worked like a subtle and evil ferment in her mind. The repressed and unhappy are in tenfold more danger from temptation than those who feel they are having their share of life's good. The stream that cannot flow in the sunshine seeks a subterranean channel, and in like manner when circumstances, or the inconsiderate will of others, impose unrelenting restraint upon the exuberant spirit of youth, it usually finds some hidden outlet which cannot bear the light. Until Roger came, circumstances had restricted Belle within such a narrow and colorless life, and she was growing very discontented with her lot--a dangerous tendency. Through all this long ordeal her mother and Mildred had retained her sympathy, for she knew that they were not to blame, and that they were right in protesting against all acquaintances and amusements which involved danger. Now that she and Roger occasionally had a merry time together, and a confidential chat on Sunday, she accepted her long days of toil without complaint.
The wholesome and tonic influence of a few hours of positive and unalloyed enjoyment in a busy or burdened life is properly estimated by a very few. Multitudes would preach better, live better, do more work and die much later, could they find some innocent recreation to which they could often give themselves up with something of the wholehearted abandon of a child.
Belle now had pleasures to look forward to, or some bright scene to live over again, and, were it not for her sympathy for her sister and anxiety on her father's behalf, her brow would have been serene.
To Mildred, however, the days were growing darker and the way more thorny. She was gaining only in the power of endurance; she was unconsciously developing the trait that bade fair to become the keynote of her life--fidelity. It was her absolute loyalty to her long-cherished love that prevented her from accepting invitations to go with Belle and Roger. Through all disguises she saw that the latter was a lover and not a friend, and while she had learned to respect him much more, she shrank from him none the less. True, therefore, to her womanly instincts, and pathetically patient with a life full of pain and weariness, she faltered on toward a future that seemed to promise less and less. Roger did not need to be told by Belle of Mildred's burdened life, although the young girl did speak of it often with sad and indignant emphasis. "Beautiful Millie, who would grace the finest house in the city," she said, "is as much out of place in this life as if a gazelle were made to do the work of a cart-horse. It's just killing her."
"It's not the work that's harming her so much as the accursed brutality which permits more cruelty to white women than was ever inflicted on black slaves. If the shopkeepers owned these girls who serve their counters they would provide them seats instantly, on the same principle that some of your Southern people, who had no humanity, cared well for their human property; but these fellows know that when a girl breaks down they can take their pick from twenty applicants the next morning. If I could scalp a few of these woman-murderers, I'd sleep better to-night. Oh, Belle, Belle, ii you knew how it hurts me to see such advantage taken of Miss Mildred! I sometimes walk the streets for hours chafing and raging about it, and yet any expression of my sympathy would only add to her distress. You must never speak to her of me, Belle, except in a casual way, when you cannot help it, for only as I keep aloof, even from her thoughts, can she tolerate me at all."
"Be patient, Roger. Millie is unlike many girls, and wants only one lover. Now I'd like half a dozen, more or less, generally more. She's too infatuated with that weakling, Vinton Arnold, to care for any one else. And to think he hasn't sent her one reassuring word since last summer! There isn't enough of him to cast a shadow. Catch me moping after such a dim outline of a man! But it's just like Millie. If he'd only vanish into thin air she might give him up, and perhaps he has."
"No, he's in Europe, and has been there ever since he left the hotel at Forestville. I learned the fact the other day. He's living in luxury and idleness, while the girl who loves him is earning her bread in a way that's infernal in its cruelty."
"How did you find that out?" Belle asked quickly.
"It was in no mean or underhand way, and no knowledge of my inquiries will ever reach him. I thought she'd like to know, however, and you can tell her, but give her no hint of the source of your information."
"Who told you?" was Mildred's prompt response to Belle's news that night, while a sudden bloom in her pale face showed how deeply the tidings interested her.
"No matter how I learned the fact," replied Belle a little brusquely; 'it's true. He wouldn't lift his little finger to keep you from starving."
"You wrong him," cried Mildred passionately; "and I don't wish you ever to speak of him again. I know who told you: it was Roger Atwood, and I wish he would leave me and my affairs alone. He is singularly stupid and ill-bred to meddle in such a matter."
"He has not meddled," retorted Belle indignantly, and wholly off her guard; "he thought you might like to know the truth, and he learned it in a way that left no trace. When you are in the streets you are always looking for Mr. Arnold (it's a pity he wasn't doing a little looking, too), and now your mind can be at ease. He isn't sick or dead; he's entirely safe and having a good time, faring sumptuously every day, while you are dying by inches for little more than bread and a nook in a tenement-house. I don't care what you say, I detest such a man."
Mildred's overtaxed nerves gave way at Belle's harsh and prosaic words, and throwing herself on her couch she sobbed so bitterly that the inconsiderate child, in deep compunction, coaxed and pleaded with her not "to take it so hard," and ended by crying in sympathy,
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