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- Without a Home - 59/94 -
gas jet burned, and under its light Roger saw them stop, and the girl produce from beneath her waterproof cloak something white, that appeared like pieces of wound lace. The man examined them, made a memorandum, and then handed them back to the girl, who hesitated to take them; but his manner was so threatening and imperious that she again concealed them on her person. As they came out together, Roger, with hat drawn over his eyes, gave them a glance which fixed the malign features of the man and the frightened, guilty visage of the girl on his memory. They regarded him suspiciously, but, as he went on without looking back, they evidently thought him a casual passer-by.
"It's a piece of villany," Roger muttered, "but of what nature I have no means of discovering, even were it any affair of mine. I am satisfied of one thing, however--that man's a scoundrel; seemingly he has the girl in his power, and it looks as if she had been stealing goods and he is compounding the felony with her."
If he had realized the depth of the fellow's villany he would not have gone back to his studies so quietly, for the one nearest to his heart was its object. The scene he had witnessed can soon be explained. Goods at the lace counter had been missed on more than one occasion, and it had been the hope of Mildred's enemy that he might fasten the suspicion upon her. On this evening, however, he had seen the girl in question secrete two or three pieces as she was folding them up, and he believed she had carried them away with her. Immediately on joining her he had charged her with the theft, and in answer to her denials threatened to have her searched before they parted. Then in terror she admitted the fact, and was in a condition to become his unwilling accomplice in the diabolical scheme suggested by his discovery.
He had said to her, in effect, that he suspected another girl--namely, Mildred Jocelyn--and that if she would place the goods in the pocket of this girl's cloak on the following afternoon he would by this act be enabled to extort a confession from her also, such as he had received in the present case. He then promised the girl in return for this service that he would make no complaint against her, but would give her the chance to find another situation, which she must do speedily, since he could no longer permit her to remain in the employ of the house for whom he acted. She was extremely reluctant to enter into this scheme, but, in her confusion, guilt, and fear, made the evil promise, finding from bitter experience that one sin, like an enemy within the walls, opens the gate to many others. She tried to satisfy such conscience as she had with the thought that Mildred was no better than herself, and that the worst which could happen to the object of this sudden conspiracy was a quiet warning to seek employment elsewhere. The man himself promised as much, although he had no such mild measures in view. It was his design to shame Mildred publicly, to break down her character, and render her desperate. He had learned that she had no protector worthy of the name, and believed that he could so adroitly play his part that he would appear only as the vigilant and faithful servant of his employers.
Mildred, all unconscious of the pit dug beneath her feet, was passing out the following evening into the dreary March storm, when the foreman touched her shoulder and said that one of the proprietors wished to see her. In much surprise, and with only the fear of one whose position meant daily bread for herself and those she loved better than self, she followed the man to the private office, where she found two of the firm, and they looked grave and severe indeed.
"Miss Jocelyn," began the elder, without any circumlocution, "laces have been missed from your department, and suspicion rests on you. I hope you can prove yourself innocent."
The charge was so awful and unexpected that she sank, paie and faint, into a chair, and the appearance of the terror-stricken girl was taken as evidence of guilt. But she goon rallied sufficiently to say, with great earnestness, "Indeed, sir, I am innocent."
"Assertion is not proof. Of course you are willing, then, to be searched?"
She, Mildred Jocelyn, searched for stolen goods! Searched, alone, in the presence of these dark-browed, frowning men! The act, the indignity, seemed overwhelming. A hot crimson flush mantled her face, and her womanhood rose in arms against the insult.
"I do not fear being searched," she said indignantly; "but a woman must perform the act."
"Certainly," said her employer; "we do not propose anything indecorous; but first call an officer."
They were convinced that they had found the culprit, and were determined to make such an example of her as would deter all others in the shop from similar dishonesty.
Mildred was left to herself a few moments, faint and bewildered, a whirl of horrible thoughts passing through her mind; and then, conscious of innocence, she began to grow calm, believing that the ordeal would soon be over. Nevertheless she had received a shock which left her weak and trembling, as she followed two of the most trusty women employed in the shop to a private apartment, at whose door she saw a bulky guardian of the law. The majority, unaware of what had taken place, had departed; but such as remained had lingered, looking in wonder at the hasty appearance of the policeman, and the intense curiosity had been heightened when they saw him stationed near an entrance through which Mildred was speedily led. They at once surmised the truth, and waited for the result of the search in almost breathless expectation. The girl who had done Mildred so deep a wrong had hastened away among the first, and so was unaware of what was taking place; the chief conspirator, from an obscure part in the now half-lighted shop, watched with cruel eyes the working of his plot.
MILDRED IN A PRISON CELL
Not from any sense of guilt, but rather from the trembling apprehensiveness of one whose spirit is already half broken by undeserved misfortune, Mildred tottered to a chair within the small apartment to which she had been taken. With an appealing glance to the two women who stood beside her she said, "Oh, hasten to prove that I am innocent! My burden was already too heavy, and this is horrible."
"Miss Jocelyn," replied the elder of the women, in a matter-of-fact tone, "it's our duty to search you thoroughly, and, if innocent, you will not fear it. There will be nothing 'horrible' about the affair at all, unless you have been stealing, and it seems to me that an honest girl would show more nerve."
"Search me, then--search as thoroughly as you please," cried Mildred, with an indignant flush crimsoning her pale, wan face. "I'd sooner starve a thousand times than take a penny that did not belong to me."
Grimly and silently, and with a half-incredulous shrug, the woman, whose mind had been poisoned against Mildred, began her search, first taking off the young girl's waterproof cloak. "Why is the bottom of this side-pocket slit open?" she asked severely. "What is this, away down between the lining and the cloth?" and she drew out two pieces of valuable lace.
Mildred looked at the ominous wares with dilated eyes, and for a moment was speechless with astonishment and terror.
"Your words and deeds are a trifle discordant," began the woman, in cold satire, "but your manner is more in keeping."
"I know nothing about that lace," Mildred exclaimed passionately. "This is a plot against--"
"Oh, nonsense!" interrupted the woman harshly. "Here, officer," she continued, opening the door, "take your prisoner. These goods were found upon her person, concealed within the lining of her cloak," and she showed him where the lace had been discovered.
"A mighty clear case," was his grinning reply; "still you must be ready to testify to-morrow, unless the girl pleads guilty, which will be her best course."
"What are you going to do with me?" asked Mildred, in a hoarse whisper.
"Oh, nothing uncommon, miss--only what is always done under such circumstances. We'll give you free lodgings to-night, and time to think a bit over your evil ways."
One of the seniors of the firm, who had drawn near to the door and had heard the result of the search, now said, with much indignation, and in a tone that all present could hear, "Officer, remove your prisoner, and show no leniency. Let the law take its full course, for we intend to stamp out all dishonesty from our establishment, most thoroughly."
"Come," said the policeman, roughly laying his hand on the shoulder of the almost paralyzed girl.
"Where?" she gasped.
"Why, to the station-house, of course," he answered impatiently.
"Oh, you can't mean THAT."
"Come, come, no nonsense, no airs. You knew well enough that the station-house and jail were at the end of the road you were travelling. People always get found out, sooner or later. If you make me trouble in arresting you, it will go all the harder with you."
"Can't I--can't I send word to my friends?"
"No, indeed, not now. Your pals must appear in court to-morrow."
She looked appealingly around, and on every face within the circle of light saw only aversion and anger, while the cruel, mocking eyes of the man whose coarse advances she had so stingingly resented were almost fiendish in their exultation.
"It's of no use," she muttered bitterly. "It seems as if all the world, and God Himself, were against me," and giving way to a
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