WITHIN THE LAW
From The Play Of Bayard Veiller
By Marvin Dana
I. The Panel of Light II. A Cheerful Prodigal III. Only Three Years IV. Kisses and Kleptomania V. The Victim of the Law VI. Inferno VII. Within the Law VIII. A Tip from Headquarters X. A Legal Document X. Marked Money XI. The Thief XII. A Bridegroom Spurned XIII. The Advent of Griggs XIV. A Wedding Announcement XV. Aftermath of Tragedy XVI. Burke Plots XVII. Outside the Law XVIII. The Noiseless Death XIX. Within the Toils XX. Who Shot Griggs? XXI. Aggie at Bay XXII. The Trap That Failed XXIII. The Confession XXIV. Anguish and Bliss
CHAPTER I. THE PANEL OF LIGHT
The lids of the girl's eyes lifted slowly, and she stared at the panel of light in the wall. Just at the outset, the act of seeing made not the least impression on her numbed brain. For a long time she continued to regard the dim illumination in the wall with the same passive fixity of gaze. Apathy still lay upon her crushed spirit. In a vague way, she realized her own inertness, and rested in it gratefully, subtly fearful lest she again arouse to the full horror of her plight. In a curious subconscious fashion, she was striving to hold on to this deadness of sensation, thus to win a little respite from the torture that had exhausted her soul.
Of a sudden, her eyes noted the black lines that lay across the panel of light. And, in that instant, her spirit was quickened once again. The clouds lifted from her brain. Vision was clear now. Understanding seized the full import of this hideous thing on which she looked.... For the panel of light was a window, set high within a wall of stone. The rigid lines of black that crossed it were bars—prison bars. It was still true, then: She was in a cell of the Tombs.
The girl, crouching miserably on the narrow bed, maintained her fixed watching of the window—that window which was a symbol of her utter despair. Again, agony wrenched within her. She did not weep: long ago she had exhausted the relief of tears. She did not pace to and fro in the comfort of physical movement with which the caged beast finds a mocking imitation of liberty: long ago, her physical vigors had been drained under stress of anguish. Now, she was well-nigh incapable of any bodily activity. There came not even so much as the feeblest moan from her lips. The torment was far too racking for such futile fashion of lamentation. She merely sat there in a posture of collapse. To all outward seeming, nerveless, emotionless, an abject creature. Even the eyes, which held so fixedly their gaze on the window, were quite expressionless. Over them lay a film, like that which veils the eyes of some dead thing. Only an occasional languid motion of the lids revealed the life that remained.
So still the body. Within the soul, fury raged uncontrolled. For all the desolate calm of outer seeming, the tragedy of her fate was being acted with frightful vividness there in memory. In that dreadful remembrance, her spirit was rent asunder anew by realization of that which had become her portion.... It was then, as once again the horrible injustice of her fate racked consciousness with its tortures, that the seeds of revolt were implanted in her heart. The thought of revenge gave to her the first meager gleam of comfort that had lightened her moods through many miserable days and nights. Those seeds of revolt were to be nourished well, were to grow into their flower—a poison flower, developed through the three years of convict life to which the judge had sentenced her.
The girl was appalled by the mercilessness of a destiny that had so outraged right. She was wholly innocent of having done any wrong. She had struggled through years of privation to keep herself clean and wholesome, worthy of those gentlefolk from whom she drew her blood. And earnest effort had ended at last under an overwhelming accusation—false, yet none the less fatal to her. This accusation, after soul-wearying delays, had culminated to-day in conviction. The sentence of the court had been imposed upon her: that for three years she should be imprisoned.... This, despite her innocence. She had endured much—miserably much!—for honesty's sake. There wrought the irony of fate. She had endured bravely for honesty's sake. And the end of it all was shame unutterable. There was nought left her save a wild dream of revenge against the world that had martyrized her. "Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord."... The admonition could not touch her now. Why should she care for the decrees of a God who had abandoned her!
There had been nothing in the life of Mary Turner, before the catastrophe came, to distinguish it from many another. Its most significant details were of a sordid kind, familiar to poverty. Her father had been an unsuccessful man, as success is esteemed by this generation of Mammon-worshipers. He was a gentleman, but the trivial fact is of small avail to-day. He was of good birth, and he was the possessor of an inherited competence. He had, as well, intelligence, but it was not of a financial sort.
So, little by little, his fortune became shrunken toward nothingness, by reason of injudicious investments. He married a charming woman, who, after a brief period of wedded happiness, gave her life to the birth of the single child of the union, Mary. Afterward, in his distress over this loss, Ray Turner seemed even more incompetent for the management of business affairs. As the years passed, the daughter grew toward maturity in an experience of ever-increasing penury. Nevertheless, there was no actual want of the necessities of life, though always a woful lack of its elegancies. The girl was in the high-school, when her father finally gave over his rather feeble effort of living. Between parent and child, the intimacy had been unusually close. At his death, the father left her a character well instructed in the excellent principles that had been his own. That was his sole legacy to her. Of worldly goods, not the value of a pin.
Yet, measured according to the stern standards of adversity, Mary was fortunate. Almost at once, she procured a humble employment in the Emporium, the great department store owned by Edward Gilder. To be sure, the wage was infinitesimal, while the toil was body-breaking soul-breaking. Still, the pittance could be made to sustain life, and Mary was blessed with both soul and body to sustain much. So she merged herself in the army of workers—in the vast battalion of those that give their entire selves to a labor most stern and unremitting, and most ill rewarded.
Mary, nevertheless, avoided the worst perils of her lot. She did not flinch under privation, but went her way through it, if not serenely, at least without ever a thought of yielding to those temptations that beset a girl who is at once poor and charming. Fortunately for her, those in closest authority over her were not so deeply smitten as to make obligatory on her a choice between complaisance and loss of position. She knew of situations like that, the cul-de-sac of chastity, worse than any devised by a Javert. In the store, such things were matters of course. There is little innocence for the girl in the modern city. There can be none for the worker thrown into the storm-center of a great commercial activity, humming with vicious gossip, all alive with quips from the worldly wise. At the very outset of her employment, the sixteen-year-old girl learned that she might eke out the six dollars weekly by trading on her personal attractiveness to those of the opposite sex. The idea was repugnant to her; not only from the maidenly instinct of purity, but also from the moral principles woven into her character by the teachings of a father wise in most things, though a fool in finance. Thus, she remained unsmirched, though well informed as to the verities of life. She preferred purity and penury, rather than a slight pampering of the body to be bought by its degradation. Among her fellows were some like herself; others, unlike. Of her own sort, in this single particular, were the two girls with whom she shared a cheap room. Their common decency in attitude toward the other sex was the unique bond of union. In their association, she found no real companionship. Nevertheless, they were wholesome enough. Otherwise they were illiterate, altogether uncongenial.
In such wise, through five dreary years, Mary Turner lived. Nine hours daily, she stood behind a counter. She spent her other waking hours in obligatory menial labors: cooking her own scant meals over the gas; washing and ironing, for the sake of that neat appearance which was required of her by those in authority at the Emporium—yet, more especially, necessary for her own self-respect. With a mind keen and earnest, she contrived some solace from reading and studying, since the free library gave her this opportunity. So, though engaged in stultifying occupation through most of her hours, she was able to find food for mental growth. Even, in the last year, she had reached a point of development whereat she began to study seriously her own position in the world's economy, to meditate on a method of bettering it. Under this impulse, hope mounted high in her heart. Ambition was born. By candid comparison of herself with others about her, she realized the fact that she possessed an intelligence beyond the average. The training by her father, too, had been of a superior kind. There was as well, at the back vaguely, the feeling of particular self-respect that belongs inevitably to the possessor of good blood. Finally, she demurely enjoyed a modest appreciation of her own physical advantages. In short, she had beauty, brains and breeding. Three things of chief importance to any woman—though there be many minds as to which may be chief among the three.
I have said nothing specific thus far as to the outer being of Mary Turner—except as to filmed eyes and a huddled form. But, in a happier situation, the girl were winning enough. Indeed, more! She was one of those that possess an harmonious beauty, with, too, the penetrant charm that springs from the mind, with the added graces born of the spirit. Just now, as she sat, a figure of desolation, there on the bed in the Tombs cell, it would have required a most analytical observer to determine the actualities of her loveliness. Her form was disguised by the droop of exhaustion. Her complexion showed the pallor of sorrowful vigils. Her face was no more than a mask of misery. Yet, the shrewd observer, if a lover of beauty, might have found much for delight, even despite the concealment imposed by her present condition. Thus, the stormy glory of her dark hair, great masses that ran a riot of shining ripples and waves. And the straight line of the nose, not too thin, yet fine enough for the rapture of a Praxiteles. And the pink daintiness of the ear-tips, which peered warmly from beneath the pall of tresses. One could know nothing accurately of the complexion now. But it were easy to guess that in happier places it would show of a purity to entice, with a gentle blooming of roses in the cheeks. Even in this hour of unmitigated evil, the lips revealed a curving beauty of red—not quite crimson, though near enough for the word; not quite scarlet either; only, a red gently enchanting, which turned one's thoughts toward tenderness—with a hint of desire. It was, too, a generous mouth, not too large; still, happily, not so small as those modeled by Watteau. It was altogether winsome—more, it was generous and true, desirable for kisses—yes!—more desirable for strength and for faith.
Like every intelligent woman, Mary had taken the trouble to reinforce the worth of her physical attractiveness. The instinct of sex was strong in her, as it must be in every normal woman, since that appeal is nature's law. She kept herself supple and svelte by many exercises, at which her companions in the chamber scoffed, with the prudent warning that more work must mean more appetite. With arms still aching from the lifting of heavy bolts of cloth to and fro from the shelves, she nevertheless was at pains nightly to brush with the appointed two hundred strokes the thick masses of her hair. Even here, in the sordid desolation of the cell, the lustrous sheen witnessed the fidelity of her care. So, in each detail of her, the keen observer might have found adequate reason for admiration. There was the delicacy of the hands, with fingers tapering, with nails perfectly shaped, neither too dull nor too shining. And there were, too, finally, the trimly shod feet, set rather primly on the floor, small, and arched like those of a Spanish Infanta. In truth, Mary Turner showed the possibilities at least, if not just now the realities, of a very beautiful woman.
Naturally, in this period of grief, the girl's mind had no concern with such external merits over which once she had modestly exulted. All her present energies were set to precise recollection of the ghastly experience into which she had been thrust.
In its outline, the event had been tragically simple.
There had been thefts in the store. They had been traced eventually to a certain department, that in which Mary worked. The detective was alert. Some valuable silks were missed. Search followed immediately. The goods were found in Mary's locker. That was enough. She was charged with the theft. She protested innocence—only to be laughed at in derision by her accusers. Every thief declares innocence. Mr. Gilder himself was emphatic against her. The thieving had been long continued. An example must be made. The girl was arrested.
The crowded condition of the court calendar kept her for three months in the Tombs, awaiting trial. She was quite friendless. To the world, she was only a thief in duress. At the last, the trial was very short. Her lawyer was merely an unfledged practitioner assigned to her defense as a formality of the court. This novice in his profession was so grateful for the first recognition ever afforded him that he rather assisted than otherwise the District Attorney in the prosecution of the case.
At the end, twelve good men and true rendered a verdict of guilty against the shuddering girl in the prisoner's dock.
So simple the history of Mary Turner's trial.... The sentence of the judge was lenient—only three years!
CHAPTER II. A CHEERFUL PRODIGAL.
That which was the supreme tragedy to the broken girl in the cell merely afforded rather agreeable entertainment to her former fellows of the department store. Mary Turner throughout her term of service there had been without real intimates, so that now none was ready to mourn over her fate. Even the two room-mates had felt some slight offense, since they sensed the superiority of her, though vaguely. Now, they found a smug satisfaction in the fact of her disaster as emphasizing very pleasurably their own continuance in respectability.
As many a philosopher has observed, we secretly enjoy the misfortunes of others, particularly of our friends, since they are closest to us. Most persons hasten to deny this truth in its application to themselves. They do so either because from lack of clear understanding they are not quite honest with themselves, from lack of clear introspection, or because, as may be more easily believed, they are not quite honest in the assertion. As a matter of fact, we do find a singular satisfaction in the troubles of others. Contemplation of such suffering renders more striking the contrasted well-being of our own lot. We need the pains of others to serve as background for our joys—just as sin is essential as the background for any appreciation of virtue, even any knowledge of its existence.... So now, on the day of Mary Turner's trial, there was a subtle gaiety of gossipings to and fro through the store. The girl's plight was like a shuttlecock driven hither and yon by the battledores of many tongues. It was the first time in many years that one of the employees had been thus accused of theft. Shoplifters were so common as to be a stale topic. There was a refreshing novelty in this case, where one of themselves was the culprit. Her fellow workers chatted desultorily of her as they had opportunity, and complacently thanked their gods that they were not as she—with reason. Perhaps, a very few were kindly hearted enough to feel a touch of sympathy for this ruin of a life.
Of such was Smithson, a member of the executive staff, who did not hesitate to speak his mind, though none too forcibly. As for that, Smithson, while the possessor of a dignity nourished by years of floor-walking, was not given to the holding of vigorous opinions. Yet, his comment, meager as it was, stood wholly in Mary's favor. And he spoke with a certain authority, since he had given official attention to the girl.
Smithson stopped Sarah Edwards, Mr. Gilder's private secretary, as she was passing through one of the departments that morning, to ask her if the owner had yet reached his office.
"Been and gone," was the secretary's answer, with the terseness characteristic of her.
"Gone!" Smithson repeated, evidently somewhat disturbed by the information. "I particularly wanted to see him."
"He'll be back, all right," Sarah vouchsafed, amiably. "He went down-town, to the Court of General Sessions. The judge sent for him about the Mary Turner case."
"Oh, yes, I remember now," Smithson exclaimed. Then he added, with a trace of genuine feeling, "I hope the poor girl gets off. She was a nice girl—quite the lady, you know, Miss Edwards."
"No, I don't know," Sarah rejoined, a bit tartly. Truth to tell, the secretary was haunted by a grim suspicion that she herself was not quite the lady of her dreams, and never would be able to acquire the graces of the Vere De Vere. For Sarah, while a most efficient secretary, was not in her person of that slender elegance which always characterized her favorite heroines in the novels she affected. On the contrary, she was of a sort to have gratified Byron, who declared that a woman in her maturity should be plump. Now, she recalled with a twinge of envy that the accused girl had been of an aristocratic slimness of form. "Oh, did you know her?" she questioned, without any real interest.
Smithson answered with that bland stateliness of manner which was the fruit of floor-walking politeness.
"Well, I couldn't exactly say I knew her, and yet I might say, after a manner of speaking, that I did—to a certain extent. You see, they put her in my department when she first came here to work. She was a good saleswoman, as saleswomen go. For the matter of that," he added with a sudden access of energy, "she was the last girl in the world I'd take for a thief." He displayed some evidences of embarrassment over the honest feeling into which he had been betrayed, and made haste to recover his usual business manner, as he continued formally. "Will you please let me know when Mr. Gilder arrives? There are one or two little matters I wish to discuss with him."
"All right!" Sarah agreed briskly, and she hurried on toward the private office.
The secretary was barely seated at her desk when the violent opening of the door startled her, and, as she looked up, a cheery voice cried out:
At the same moment, a young man entered, with an air of care-free assurance, his face radiant. But, as his glance went to the empty arm-chair at the desk, he halted abruptly, and his expression changed to one of disappointment.
"Not here!" he grumbled. Then, once again the smile was on his lips as his eyes fell on the secretary, who had now risen to her feet in a flutter of excitement.
"Why, Mr. Dick!" Sarah gasped.
"Hello, Sadie!" came the genial salutation. The young man advanced and shook hands with her warmly. "I'm home again. Where's Dad?"
Even as he asked the question, the quick sobering of his face bore witness to his disappointment over not finding his father in the office. For such was the relationship of the owner of the department store to this new arrival on the scene. And in the patent chagrin under which the son now labored was to be found a certain indication of character not to be disregarded. Unlike many a child, he really loved his father. The death of the mother years before had left him without other opportunity for affection in the home, since he had neither brother nor sister. He loved his father with a depth of feeling that made between the two a real camaraderie, despite great differences in temperament. In that simple and sincere regard which he bore for his father, the boy revealed a heart ready for love, willing to give of itself its best for the one beloved. Beyond that, as yet, there was little to be said of him with exactness. He was a spoiled child of fortune, if you wish to have it so. Certainly, he was only a drone in the world's hive. Thus far, he had enjoyed the good things of life, without ever doing aught to deserve them by contributing in return—save by his smiles and his genial air of happiness.
In the twenty-three years of his life, every gift that money could lavish had been his. If the sum total of benefit was small, at least there remained the consoling fact that the harm was even less. Luxury had not sapped the strength of him. He had not grown vicious, as have so many of his fellows among the sons of the rich. Some instinct held him aloof from the grosser vices. His were the trifling faults that had their origin chiefly in the joy of life, which manifest occasionally in riotous extravagancies, of a sort actually to harm none, however absurd and useless they may be.
So much one might see by a glance into the face. He was well groomed, of course; healthy, all a-tingle with vitality. And in the clear eyes, which avoided no man's gaze, nor sought any woman's unseemly, there showed a soul untainted, not yet developed, not yet debased. Through all his days, Dick Gilder had walked gladly, in the content that springs to the call of one possessed of a capacity for enjoyment; possessed, too, of every means for the gratification of desire. As yet, the man of him was unrevealed in its integrity. No test had been put upon him. The fires of suffering had not tried the dross of him. What real worth might lie under this sunny surface the future must determine. There showed now only this one significant fact: that, in the first moment of his return from journeyings abroad, he sought his father with all eagerness, and was sorely grieved because the meeting must still be delayed. It was a little thing, perhaps. Yet, it was capable of meaning much concerning the nature of the lad. It revealed surely a tender heart, one responsive to a pure love. And to one of his class, there are many forces ever present to atrophy such simple, wholesome power of loving. The ability to love cleanly and absolutely is the supreme virtue.
Sarah explained that Mr. Gilder had been called to the Court of General Sessions by the judge.
Dick interrupted her with a gust of laughter.
"What's Dad been doing now?" he demanded, his eyes twinkling. Then, a reminiscent grin shaped itself on his lips. "Remember the time that fresh cop arrested him for speeding? Wasn't he wild? I thought he would have the whole police force discharged." He smiled again. "The trouble is," he declared sedately, "that sort of thing requires practice. Now, when I'm arrested for speeding, I'm not in the least flustered—oh, not a little bit! But poor Dad! That one experience of his almost soured his whole life. It was near the death of him—also, of the city's finest."
By this time, the secretary had regained her usual poise, which had been somewhat disturbed by the irruption of the young man. Her round face shone delightedly as she regarded him. There was a maternal note of rebuke in her voice as she spoke:
"Why, we didn't expect you back for two or three months yet."
Once again, Dick laughed, with an infectious gaiety that brought a smile of response to the secretary's lips.
"Sadie," he explained confidentially, "don't you dare ever to let the old man know. He would be all swollen up. It's bad to let a parent swell up. But the truth is, Sadie, I got kind of homesick for Dad—yes, just that!" He spoke the words with a sort of shamefaced wonder. It is not easy for an Anglo-Saxon to confess the realities of affection in vital intimacies. He repeated the phrase in a curiously appreciative hesitation, as one astounded by his own emotion. "Yes, homesick for Dad!"
Then, to cover an excess of sincere feeling, he continued, with a burst of laughter:
"Besides, Sadie, I was broke."
The secretary sniffed.
"The cable would have handled that end of it, I guess," she said, succinctly.
There was no word of contradiction from Dick, who, from ample experience, knew that any demand for funds would have received answer from the father.
"But what is Dad doing in court?" he demanded.
Sarah explained the matter with her usual conciseness:
"One of the girls was arrested for stealing."
The nature of the son was shown then clearly in one of its best aspects. At once, he exhibited his instinct toward the quality of mercy, and, too, his trust in the father whom he loved, by his eager comment.
"And Dad went to court to get her out of the scrape. That's just like the old man!"
Sarah, however, showed no hint of enthusiasm. Her mind was ever of the prosaic sort, little prone to flights. In that prosaic quality, was to be found the explanation of her dependability as a private secretary. So, now, she merely made a terse statement.
"She was tried to-day, and convicted. The judge sent for Mr. Gilder to come down this morning and have a talk with him about the sentence."
There was no lessening of the expression of certainty on the young man's face. He loved his father, and he trusted where he loved.
"It will be all right," he declared, in a tone of entire conviction. "Dad's heart is as big as a barrel. He'll get her off."
Then, of a sudden, Dick gave a violent start. He added a convincing groan.
"Oh, Lord!" he exclaimed, dismally. There was shame in his voice. "I forgot all about it!"
The secretary regarded him with an expression of amazement.
"All about what?" she questioned.
Dick assumed an air vastly more confidential than at any time hitherto. He leaned toward the secretary's desk, and spoke with a new seriousness of manner:
"Sadie, have you any money? I'm broker My taxi' has been waiting outside all this time."
"Why, yes," the secretary said, cheerfully. "If you will——"
Dick was discreet enough to turn his attention to a picture on the wall opposite while Sarah went through those acrobatic performances obligatory on women who take no chances of losing money by carrying it in purses.
"There!" she called after a few panting seconds, and exhibited a flushed face.
Dick turned eagerly and seized the banknote offered him.
"Mighty much obliged, Sadie," he said, enthusiastically. "But I must run. Otherwise, this wouldn't be enough for the fare!" And, so saying, he darted out of the room.
CHAPTER III. ONLY THREE YEARS.
When, at last, the owner of the store entered the office, his face showed extreme irritation. He did not vouchsafe any greeting to the secretary, who regarded him with an accurate perception of his mood. With a diplomacy born of long experience, in her first speech Sarah afforded an agreeable diversion to her employer's line of thought.
"Mr. Hastings, of the Empire store, called you up, Mr. Gilder, and asked me to let him know when you returned. Shall I get him on the wire?"
The man's face lightened instantly, and there was even the beginning of a smile on his lips as he seated himself at the great mahogany desk.
"Yes, yes!" he exclaimed, with evident enthusiasm. The smile grew in the short interval before the connection was made. When, finally, he addressed his friend over the telephone, his tones were of the cheerfulest.
"Oh, good morning. Yes, certainly. Four will suit me admirably.... Sunday? Yes, if you like. We can go out after church, and have luncheon at the country club." After listening a moment, he laughed in a pleased fashion that had in it a suggestion of conscious superiority. "My dear fellow," he declared briskly, "you couldn't beat me in a thousand years. Why, I made the eighteen holes in ninety-two only last week." He laughed again at the answer over the wire, then hung up the receiver and pushed the telephone aside, as he turned his attention to the papers neatly arranged on the desk ready to his hand.
The curiosity of the secretary could not be longer delayed.
"What did they do with the Turner girl?" she inquired in an elaborately casual manner.
Gilder did not look up from the heap of papers, but answered rather harshly, while once again his expression grew forbidding.
"I don't know—I couldn't wait," he said. He made a petulant gesture as he went on: "I don't see why Judge Lawlor bothered me about the matter. He is the one to impose sentence, not I. I am hours behind with my work now."
For a few minutes he gave himself up to the routine of business, distributing the correspondence and other various papers for the action of subordinates, and speaking his orders occasionally to the attentive secretary with a quickness and precision that proclaimed the capable executive. The observer would have realized at once that here was a man obviously fitted to the control of large affairs. The ability that marches inevitably to success showed unmistakably in the face and form, and in the fashion of speech. Edward Gilder was a big man physically, plainly the possessor of that abundant vital energy which is a prime requisite for achievement in the ordering of modern business concerns. Force was, indeed, the dominant quality of the man. His tall figure was proportionately broad, and he was heavily fleshed. In fact, the body was too ponderous. Perhaps, in that characteristic might be found a clue to the chief fault in his nature. For he was ponderous, spiritually and mentally, as well as materially. The fact was displayed suggestively in the face, which was too heavy with its prominent jowls and aggressive chin and rather bulbous nose. But there was nothing flabby anywhere. The ample features showed no trace of weakness, only a rude, abounding strength. There was no lighter touch anywhere. Evidently a just man according to his own ideas, yet never one to temper justice with mercy. He appeared, and was, a very practical and most prosaic business man. He was not given to a humorous outlook on life. He took it and himself with the utmost seriousness. He was almost entirely lacking in imagination, that faculty which is essential to sympathy.
"Take this," he directed presently, when he had disposed of the matters before him. Forthwith, he dictated the following letter, and now his voice took on a more unctuous note, as of one who is appreciative of his own excellent generosity.
"The New York Herald.
"DEAR SIR: Inclosed please find my check for a thousand dollars for your free-ice fund. It is going to be a very hard summer for the poor, and I hope by thus starting the contributions for your fine charity at this early day that you will be able to accomplish even more good than usually.
"Very truly yours."
He turned an inquiring glance toward Sarah.
"That's what I usually give, isn't it?"
The secretary nodded energetically.
"Yes," she agreed in her brisk manner, "that's what you have given every year for the last ten years."
The statement impressed Gilder pleasantly. His voice was more mellow as he made comment. His heavy face was radiant, and he smiled complacently.
"Ten thousand dollars to this one charity alone!" he exclaimed. "Well, it is pleasant to be able to help those less fortunate than ourselves." He paused, evidently expectant of laudatory corroboration from the secretary.
But Sarah, though she could be tactful enough on occasion, did not choose to meet her employer's anticipations just now. For that matter, her intimate services permitted on her part some degree of familiarity with the august head of the establishment. Besides, she did not stand in awe of Gilder, as did the others in his service. No man is a hero to his valet, or to his secretary. Intimate association is hostile to hero-worship. So, now, Sarah spoke nonchalantly, to the indignation of the philanthropist:
"Oh, yes, sir. Specially when you make so much that you don't miss it."
Gilder's thick gray brows drew down in a frown of displeasure, while his eyes opened slightly in sheer surprise over the secretary's unexpected remark. He hesitated for only an instant before replying with an air of great dignity, in which was a distinct note of rebuke for the girl's presumption.
"The profits from my store are large, I admit, Sarah. But I neither smuggle my goods, take rebates from railroads, conspire against small competitors, nor do any of the dishonest acts that disgrace other lines of business. So long as I make my profits honestly, I am honestly entitled to them, no matter how big they are."
The secretary, being quite content with the havoc she had wrought in her employer's complacency over his charitableness, nodded, and contented herself with a demure assent to his outburst.
"Yes, sir," she agreed, very meekly.
Gilder stared at her for a few seconds, somewhat indignantly. Then, he bethought himself of a subtle form of rebuke by emphasizing his generosity.
"Have the cashier send my usual five hundred to the Charities Organization Society," he ordered. With this new evidence of his generous virtue, the frown passed from his brows. If, for a fleeting moment, doubt had assailed him under the spur of the secretary's words, that doubt had now vanished under his habitual conviction as to his sterling worth to the world at large.
It was, therefore, with his accustomed blandness of manner that he presently acknowledged the greeting of George Demarest, the chief of the legal staff that looked after the firm's affairs. He was aware without being told that the lawyer had called to acquaint him with the issue in the trial of Mary Turner.
"Well, Demarest?" he inquired, as the dapper attorney advanced into the room at a rapid pace, and came to a halt facing the desk, after a lively nod in the direction of the secretary.
The lawyer's face sobered, and his tone as he answered was tinged with constraint.
"Judge Lawlor gave her three years," he replied, gravely. It was plain from his manner that he did not altogether approve.
But Gilder was unaffected by the attorney's lack of satisfaction over the result. On the contrary, he smiled exultantly. His oritund voice took on a deeper note, as he turned toward the secretary.
"Good!" he exclaimed. "Take this, Sarah." And he continued, as the girl opened her notebook and poised the pencil: "Be sure to have Smithson post a copy of it conspicuously in all the girls' dressing-rooms, and in the reading-room, and in the lunch-rooms, and in the assembly-room." He cleared his throat ostentatiously and proceeded to the dictation of the notice:
"Mary Turner, formerly employed in this store, was to-day sentenced to prison for three years, having been convicted for the theft of goods valued at over four hundred dollars. The management wishes again to draw attention on the part of its employees to the fact that honesty is always the best policy.... Got that?"
"Yes, sir." The secretary's voice was mechanical, without any trace of feeling. She was not minded to disturb her employer a second time this morning by injudicious comment.
"Take it to Smithson," Gilder continued, "and tell him that I wish him to attend to its being posted according to my directions at once."
Again, the girl made her formal response in the affirmative, then left the room.
Gilder brought forth a box of cigars from a drawer of the desk, opened it and thrust it toward the waiting lawyer, who, however, shook his head in refusal, and continued to move about the room rather restlessly. Demarest paid no attention to the other's invitation to a seat, but the courtesy was perfunctory on Gilder's part, and he hardly perceived the perturbation of his caller, for he was occupied in selecting and lighting a cigar with the care of a connoisseur. Finally, he spoke again, and now there was an infinite contentment in the rich voice.
"Three years—three years! That ought to be a warning to the rest of the girls." He looked toward Demarest for acquiescence.
The lawyer's brows were knit as he faced the proprietor of the store.
"Funny thing, this case!" he ejaculated. "In some features, one of the most unusual I have seen since I have been practicing law."
The smug contentment abode still on Gilder's face as he puffed in leisurely ease on his cigar and uttered a trite condolence.
"Very sad!—quite so! Very sad case, I call it." Demarest went on speaking, with a show of feeling: "Most unusual case, in my estimation. You see, the girl keeps on declaring her innocence. That, of course, is common enough in a way. But here, it's different. The point is, somehow, she makes her protestations more convincing than they usually do. They ring true, as it seems to me."
Gilder smiled tolerantly.
"They didn't ring very true to the jury, it would seem," he retorted. And his voice was tart as he added: "Nor to the judge, since he deemed it his duty to give her three years."
"Some persons are not very sensitive to impressions in such cases, I admit," Demarest returned, coolly. If he meant any subtlety of allusion to his hearer, it failed wholly to pierce the armor of complacency.
"The stolen goods were found in her locker," Gilder declared in a tone of finality. "Some of them, I have been given to understand, were actually in the pocket of her coat."
"Well," the attorney said with a smile, "that sort of thing makes good-enough circumstantial evidence, and without circumstantial evidence there would be few convictions for crime. Yet, as a lawyer, I'm free to admit that circumstantial evidence alone is never quite safe as proof of guilt. Naturally, she says some one else must have put the stolen goods there. As a matter of exact reasoning, that is quite within the measure of possibility. That sort of thing has been done countless times."
Gilder sniffed indignantly.
"And for what reason?" he demanded. "It's too absurd to think about."
"In similar cases," the lawyer answered, "those actually guilty of the thefts have thus sought to throw suspicion on the innocent in order to avoid it on themselves when the pursuit got too hot on their trail. Sometimes, too, such evidence has been manufactured merely to satisfy a spite against the one unjustly accused."
"It's too absurd to think about," Gilder repeated, impatiently. "The judge and the jury found no fault with the evidence."
Demarest realized that this advocacy in behalf of the girl was hardly fitting on the part of the legal representative of the store she was supposed to have robbed, so he abruptly changed his line of argument.
"She says that her record of five years in your employ ought to count something in her favor."
Gilder, however, was not disposed to be sympathetic as to a matter so flagrantly opposed to his interests.
"A court of justice has decreed her guilty," he asserted once again, in his ponderous manner. His emphasis indicated that there the affair ended.
Demarest smiled cynically as he strode to and fro.
"Nowadays," he shot out, "we don't call them courts of justice: we call them courts of law."
Gilder yielded only a rather dubious smile over the quip. This much he felt that he could afford, since those same courts served his personal purposes well in deed.
"Anyway," he declared, becoming genial again, "it's out of our hands. There's nothing we can do, now."
"Why, as to that," the lawyer replied, with a hint of hesitation, "I am not so sure. You see, the fact of the matter is that, though I helped to prosecute the case, I am not a little bit proud of the verdict."
Gilder raised his eyebrows in unfeigned astonishment. Even yet, he was quite without appreciation of the attorney's feeling in reference to the conduct of the case.
"Why?" he questioned, sharply.
"Because," the lawyer said, again halting directly before the desk, "in spite of all the evidence against her, I am not sure that Mary Turner is guilty—far from it, in fact!"
Gilder uttered an ejaculation of contempt, but Demarest went on resolutely.
"Anyhow," he explained, "the girl wants to see you, and I wish to urge you to grant her an interview."
Gilder flared at this suggestion, and scowled wrathfully on the lawyer, who, perhaps with professional prudence, had turned away in his rapid pacing of the room.
"What's the use?" Gilder stormed. A latent hardness revealed itself at the prospect of such a visitation. And along with this hardness came another singular revelation of the nature of the man. For there was consternation in his voice, as he continued in vehement expostulation against the idea. If there was harshness in his attitude there was, too, a fugitive suggestion of tenderness alarmed over the prospect of undergoing such an interview with a woman.
"I can't have her crying all over the office and begging for mercy," he protested, truculently. But a note of fear lay under the petulance.
Demarest's answer was given with assurance,
"You are mistaken about that. The girl doesn't beg for mercy. In fact, that's the whole point of the matter. She demands justice—strange as that may seem, in a court of law!—and nothing else. The truth is, she's a very unusual girl, a long way beyond the ordinary sales-girl, both in brains and in education."
"The less reason, then, for her being a thief," Gilder grumbled in his heaviest voice.
"And perhaps the less reason for believing her to be a thief," the lawyer retorted, suavely. He paused for a moment, then went on. There was a tone of sincere determination in his voice. "Just before the judge imposed sentence, he asked her if she had anything to say. You know, it's just a usual form—a thing that rarely means much of anything. But this case was different, let me tell you. She surprised us all by answering at once that she had. It's really a pity, Gilder, that you didn't wait. Why, that poor girl made a—damn—fine speech!"
The lawyer's forensic aspirations showed in his honest appreciation of the effectiveness of such oratory from the heart as he had heard in the courtroom that day.
"Pooh! pooh!" came the querulous objection. "She seems to have hypnotized you." Then, as a new thought came to the magnate, he spoke with a trace of anxiety. There were always the reporters, looking for space to fill with foolish vaporings.
"Did she say anything against me, or the store?"
"Not a word," the lawyer replied, gravely. His smile of appreciation was discreetly secret. "She merely told us how her father died when she was sixteen years old. She was compelled after that to earn her own living. Then she told how she had worked for you for five years steadily, without there ever being a single thing against her. She said, too, that she had never seen the things found in her locker. And she said more than that! She asked the judge if he himself understood what it means for a girl to be sentenced to prison for something she hadn't done. Somehow, Gilder, the way she talked had its effect on everybody in the courtroom. I know! It's my business to understand things like that. And what she said rang true. What she said, and the way she said it, take brains and courage. The ordinary crook has neither. So, I had a suspicion that she might be speaking the truth. You see, Gilder, it all rang true! And it's my business to know how things ring in that way." There was a little pause, while the lawyer moved back and forth nervously. Then, he added: "I believe Lawlor would have suspended sentence if it hadn't been for your talk with him."
There were not wanting signs that Gilder was impressed. But the gentler fibers of the man were atrophied by the habits of a lifetime. What heart he had once possessed had been buried in the grave of his young wife, to be resurrected only for his son. In most things, he was consistently a hard man. Since he had no imagination, he could have no real sympathy.
He whirled about in his swivel chair, and blew a cloud of smoke from his mouth. When he spoke, his voice was deeply resonant.
"I simply did my duty," he said. "You are aware that I did not seek any consultation with Judge Lawlor. He sent for me, and asked me what I thought about the case—whether I thought it would be right to let the girl go on a suspended sentence. I told him frankly that I believed that an example should be made of her, for the sake of others who might be tempted to steal. Property has some rights, Demarest, although it seems to be getting nowadays so that anybody is likely to deny it." Then the fretful, half-alarmed note sounded in his voice again, as he continued: "I can't understand why the girl wants to see me."
The lawyer smiled dryly, since he had his back turned at the moment.
"Why," he vouchsafed, "she just said that, if you would see her for ten minutes, she would tell you how to stop the thefts in this store."
Gilder displayed signs of triumph. He brought his chair to a level and pounded the desk with a weighty fist.
"There!" he cried. "I knew it. The girl wants to confess. Well, it's the first sign of decent feeling she's shown. I suppose it ought to be encouraged. Probably there have been others mixed up in this."
Demarest attempted no denial.
"Perhaps," he admitted, though he spoke altogether without conviction. "But," he continued insinuatingly, "at least it can do no harm if you see her. I thought you would be willing, so I spoke to the District Attorney, and he has given orders to bring her here for a few minutes on the way to the Grand Central Station. They're taking her up to Burnsing, you know. I wish, Gilder, you would have a little talk with her. No harm in that!" With the saying, the lawyer abruptly went out of the office, leaving the owner of the store fuming.
CHAPTER IV. KISSES AND KLEPTOMANIA.
After the attorney's departure, Gilder had been rather fussily going over some of the papers on his desk. He was experiencing a vague feeling of injury on account of the lawyer's ill-veiled efforts to arouse his sympathy in behalf of the accused girl. In the instinct of strengthening himself against the possibility of yielding to what he deemed weakness, the magnate rehearsed the facts that justified his intolerance, and, indeed, soon came to gloating over the admirable manner in which righteousness thrives in the world. And it was then that an interruption came in the utterance of two words, words of affection, of love, cried out in the one voice he most longed to hear—for the voice was that of his son. Yet, he did not look up. The thing was altogether impossible! The boy was philandering, junketing, somewhere on the Riviera. His first intimation as to the exact place would come in the form of a cable asking for money. Somehow, his feelings had been unduly stirred that morning; he had grown sentimental, dreaming of pleasant things.... All this in a second. Then, he looked up. Why, it was true! It was Dick's face there, smiling in the doorway. Yes, it was Dick, it was Dick himself! Gilder sprang to his feet, his face suddenly grown younger, radiant.
"Dick!" The big voice was softened to exquisite tenderness.
As the eyes of the two met, the boy rushed forward, and in the next moment the hands of father and son clasped firmly. They were silent in the first emotion of their greeting. Presently, Gilder spoke, with an effort toward harshness in his voice to mask how much he was shaken. But the tones rang more kindly than any he had used for many a day, tremulous with affection.
"What brought you back?" he demanded.
Dick, too, had felt the tension of an emotion far beyond that of the usual things. He was forced to clear his throat before he answered with that assumption of nonchalance which he regarded as befitting the occasion.
"Why, I just wanted to come back home," he said; lightly. A sudden recollection came to give him poise in this time of emotional disturbance, and he added hastily: "And, for the love of heaven, give Sadie five dollars. I borrowed it from her to pay the taxi'. You see, Dad, I'm broke."
"Of course!" With the saying, Edward Gilder roared Gargantuan laughter. In the burst of merriment, his pent feelings found their vent. He was still chuckling when he spoke, sage from much experience of ocean travel. "Poker on the ship, I suppose."
The young man, too, smiled reminiscently as he answered:
"No, not that, though I did have a little run in at Monte Carlo. But it was the ship that finished me, at that. You see, Dad, they hired Captain Kidd and a bunch of pirates as stewards, and what they did to little Richard was something fierce. And yet, that wasn't the real trouble, either. The fact is, I just naturally went broke. Not a hard thing to do on the other side."
"Nor on this," the father interjected, dryly.
"Anyhow, it doesn't matter much," Dick replied, quite unabashed. "Tell me, Dad, how goes it?"
Gilder settled himself again in his chair, and gazed benignantly on his son.
"Pretty well," he said contentedly; "pretty well, son. I'm glad to see you home again, my boy." There was a great tenderness in the usually rather cold gray eyes.
The young man answered promptly, with delight in his manner of speech, and a sincerity that revealed the underlying merit of his nature.
"And I'm glad to be home, Dad, to be"—there was again that clearing of the throat, but he finished bravely—"with you."
The father avoided a threatening display of emotion by an abrupt change of subject to the trite.
"Have a good time?" he inquired casually, while fumbling with the papers on the desk.
Dick's face broke in a smile of reminiscent happiness.
"The time of my young life!" He paused, and the smile broadened. There was a mighty enthusiasm in his voice as he continued: "I tell you, Dad, it's a fact that I did almost break the bank at Monte Carlo. I'd have done it sure, if only my money had held out."
"It seems to me that I've heard something of the sort before," was Gilder's caustic comment. But his smile was still wholly sympathetic. He took a curious vicarious delight in the escapades of his son, probably because he himself had committed no follies in his callow days. "Why didn't you cable me?" he asked, puzzled at such restraint on the part of his son.
Dick answered with simple sincerity.
"Because it gave me a capital excuse for coming home."
It was Sarah who afforded a diversion. She had known Dick while he was yet a child, had bought him candy, had felt toward him a maternal liking that increased rather than diminished as he grew to manhood. Now, her face lighted at sight of him, and she smiled a welcome.
"I see you have found him," she said, with a ripple of laughter.
Dick welcomed this interruption of the graver mood.
"Sadie," he said, with a manner of the utmost seriousness, "you are looking finer than ever. And how thin you have grown!"
The girl, eager with fond fancies toward the slender ideal, accepted the compliment literally.
"Oh, Mr. Dick!" she exclaimed, rapturously. "How much do you think I have lost?"
The whimsical heir of the house of Gilder surveyed his victim critically, then spoke with judicial solemnity.
"About two ounces, Sadie."
There came a look of deep hurt on Sadie's face at the flippant jest, which Dick himself was quick to note.
He had not guessed she was thus acutely sensitive concerning her plumpness. Instantly, he was all contrition over his unwitting offense inflicted on her womanly vanity.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Sadie," he exclaimed penitently. "Please don't be really angry with me. Of course, I didn't mean——"
"To twit on facts!" the secretary interrupted, bitterly.
"Pooh!" Dick cried, craftily. "You aren't plump enough to be sensitive about it. Why, you're just right." There was something very boyish about his manner, as he caught at the girl's arm. A memory of the days when she had cuddled him caused him to speak warmly, forgetting the presence of his father. "Now, don't be angry, Sadie. Just give me a little kiss, as you used to do." He swept her into his arms, and his lips met hers in a hearty caress. "There!" he cried. "Just to show there's no ill feeling."
The girl was completely mollified, though in much embarrassment.
"Why, Mr. Dick!" she stammered, in confusion. "Why, Mr. Dick!"
Gilder, who had watched the scene in great astonishment, now interposed to end it.
"Stop, Dick!" he commanded, crisply. "You are actually making Sarah blush. I think that's about enough, son."
But a sudden unaccustomed gust of affection swirled in the breast of the lad. Plain Anglo-Saxon as he was, with all that implies as to the avoidance of displays of emotion, nevertheless he had been for a long time in lands far from home, where the habits of impulsive and affectionate peoples were radically unlike our own austerer forms. So now, under the spur of an impulse suggested by the dalliance with the buxom secretary, he grinned widely and went to his father.
"A little kiss never hurts any one," he declared, blithely. Then he added vivaciously: "Here, I'll show you!"
With the words, he clasped his arms around his father's neck, and, before that amazed gentleman could understand his purpose, he had kissed soundly first the one cheek and then the other, each with a hearty, wholesome smack of filial piety. This done, he stood back, still beaming happily, while the astounded Sarah tittered bewilderedly. For his own part, Dick was quite unashamed. He loved his father. For once, he had expressed that fondness in a primitive fashion, and he was glad.
The older man withdrew a step, and there rested motionless, under the sway of an emotion akin to dismay. He stood staring intently at his son with a perplexity in his expression that was almost ludicrous. When, at last, he spoke, his voice was a rumble of strangely shy pleasure.
"God bless my soul!" he exclaimed, violently. Then he raised a hand, and rubbed first one cheek, and after it its fellow, with a gentleness that was significant. The feeling provoked by the embrace showed plainly in his next words. "Why, that's the first time you have kissed me, Dick, since you were a little boy. God bless my soul!" he repeated. And now there was a note of jubilation.
The son, somewhat disturbed by this emotion he had aroused, nevertheless answered frankly with the expression of his own feeling, as he advanced and laid a hand on his father's shoulder.
"The fact is, Dad," he said quietly, with a smile that was good to see, "I am awfully glad to see you again."
"Are you, son?" the father cried happily. Then, abruptly his manner changed, for he felt himself perilously close to the maudlin in this new yielding to sentimentality. Such kisses of tenderness, however agreeable in themselves, were hardly fitting to one of his dignity. "You clear out of here, boy," he commanded, brusquely. "I'm a working man. But here, wait a minute," he added. He brought forth from a pocket a neat sheaf of banknotes, which he held out. "There's carfare for you," he said with a chuckle. "And now clear out. I'll see you at dinner."
Dick bestowed the money in his pocket, and again turned toward the door.
"You can always get rid of me on the same terms," he remarked slyly. And then the young man gave evidence that he, too, had some of his father's ability in things financial. For, in the doorway he turned with a final speech, which was uttered in splendid disregard for the packet of money he had just received—perhaps, rather, in a splendid regard for it. "Oh, Dad, please don't forget to give Sadie that five dollars I borrowed from her for the taxi'." And with that impertinent reminder he was gone.
The owner of the store returned to his labors with a new zest, for the meeting with his son had put him in high spirits. Perhaps it might have been better for Mary Turner had she come to him just then, while he was yet in this softened mood. But fate had ordained that other events should restore him to his usual harder self before their interview. The effect was, indeed, presently accomplished by the advent of Smithson into the office. He entered with an expression of discomfiture on his rather vacuous countenance. He walked almost nimbly to the desk and spoke with evident distress, as his employer looked up interrogatively.
"McCracken has detained—er—a—lady, sir," he said, feebly. "She has been searched, and we have found about a hundred dollars worth of laces on her."
"Well?" Gilder demanded, impatiently. Such affairs were too common in the store to make necessary this intrusion of the matter on him. "Why did you come to me about it?" His staff knew just what to do with shoplifters.
At once, Smithson became apologetic, while refusing to retreat.
"I'm very sorry, sir," he said haltingly, "but I thought it wiser, sir, to—er—to bring the matter to your personal attention."
"Quite unnecessary, Smithson," Gilder returned, with asperity. "You know my views on the subject of property. Tell McCracken to have the thief arrested."
Smithson cleared his throat doubtfully, and in his stress of feeling he even relaxed a trifle that majestical erectness of carriage that had made him so valuable as a floor-walker.
"She's not exactly a—er—a thief," he ventured.
"You are trifling, Smithson," the owner of the store exclaimed, in high exasperation. "Not a thief! And you caught her with a hundred dollars worth of laces that she hadn't bought. Not a thief! What in heaven's name do you call her, then?"
"A kleptomaniac," Smithson explained, retaining his manner of mild insistence. "You see, sir, it's this way. The lady happens to be the wife of J. W. Gaskell, the banker, you know."
Yes, Gilder did know. The mention of the name was like a spell in the effect it wrought on the attitude of the irritated owner of the store. Instantly, his expression changed. While before his features had been set grimly, while his eyes had flashed wrathfully, there was now only annoyance over an event markedly unfortunate.
"How extremely awkward!" he cried; and there was a very real concern in his voice. He regarded Smithson kindly, whereat that rather puling gentleman once again assumed his martial bearing. "You were quite right in coming to me." For a moment he was silent, plunged in thought. Finally he spoke with the decisiveness characteristic of him. "Of course, there's nothing we can do. Just put the stuff back on the counter, and let her go."
But Smithson had not yet wholly unburdened himself. Instead of immediately leaving the room in pursuance of the succinct instructions given him, he again cleared his throat nervously, and made known a further aggravating factor in the situation.
"She's very angry, Mr. Gilder," he announced, timidly. "She—er—she demands an—er—an apology."
The owner of the store half-rose from his chair, then threw himself back with an exclamation of disgust. He again ejaculated the words with which he had greeted his son's unexpected kisses, but now there was a vast difference in the intonation.
"God bless my soul!" he cried. From his expression, it was clear that a pious aspiration was farthest from his thought. On the contrary! Again, he fell silent, considering the situation which Smithson had presented, and, as he reflected, his frown betrayed the emotion natural enough under the circumstances. At last, however, he mastered his irritation to some degree, and spoke his command briefly. "Well, Smithson, apologize to her. It can't be helped." Then his face lighted with a sardonic amusement. "And, Smithson," he went on with a sort of elephantine playfulness, "I shall take it as a personal favor if you will tactfully advise the lady that the goods at Altman and Stern's are really even finer than ours."
When Smithson had left the office, Gilder turned to his secretary.
"Take this," he directed, and he forthwith dictated the following letter to the husband of the lady who was not a thief, as Smithson had so painstakingly pointed out:
"J. W. GASKELL, ESQ.,
"Central National Bank, New York.
"MY DEAR Mr. GASKELL: I feel that I should be doing less than my duty as a man if I did not let you know at once that Mrs. Gaskell is in urgent need of medical attention. She came into our store to-day, and——"
He paused for a moment. "No, put it this way," he said finally:
"We found her wandering about our store to-day in a very nervous condition. In her excitement, she carried away about one hundred dollars' worth of rare laces. Not recognizing her, our store detective detained her for a short time. Fortunately for us all, Mrs. Gaskell was able to explain who she was, and she has just gone to her home. Hoping for Mrs. Gaskell's speedy recovery, and with all good wishes, I am,
"Yours very truly."
Yet, though he had completed the letter, Gilder did not at once take up another detail of his business. Instead, he remained plunged in thought, and now his frown was one of simple bewilderment. A number of minutes passed before he spoke, and then his words revealed distinctly what had been his train of meditation.
"Sadie," he said in a voice of entire sincerity, "I can't understand theft. It's a thing absolutely beyond my comprehension."
On the heels of this ingenuous declaration, Smithson entered the office, and that excellent gentleman appeared even more perturbed than before.
"What on earth is the matter now?" Gilder spluttered, suspiciously.
"It's Mrs. Gaskell still," Smithson replied in great trepidation. "She wants you personally, Mr. Gilder, to apologize to her. She says that the action taken against her is an outrage, and she is not satisfied with the apologies of all the rest of us. She says you must make one, too, and that the store detective must be discharged for intolerable insolence."
Gilder bounced up from his chair angrily.
"I'll be damned if I'll discharge McCracken," he vociferated, glaring on Smithson, who shrank visibly.
But that mild and meek man had a certain strength of pertinacity. Besides, in this case, he had been having multitudinous troubles of his own, which could be ended only by his employer's placating of the offended kleptomaniac.
"But about the apology, Mr. Gilder," he reminded, speaking very deferentially, yet with insistence.
Business instinct triumphed over the magnate's irritation, and his face cleared.
"Oh, I'll apologize," he said with a wry smile of discomfiture. "I'll make things even up a bit when I get an apology from Gaskell. I shrewdly suspect that that estimable gentleman is going to eat humble pie, of my baking, from his wife's recipe. And his will be an honest apology—which mine won't, not by a damned sight!" With the words, he left the room, in his wake a hugely relieved Smithson.
Alone in the office, Sarah neglected her work for a few minutes to brood over the startling contrast of events that had just forced itself on her attention. She was not a girl given to the analysis of either persons or things, but in this instance the movement of affairs had come close to her, and she was compelled to some depth of feeling by the two aspects of life on which to-day she looked. In the one case, as she knew it, a girl under the urge of poverty had stolen. That thief had been promptly arrested, finally she had been tried, had been convicted, had been sentenced to three years in prison. In the other case, a woman of wealth had stolen. There had been no punishment. A euphemism of kleptomania had been offered and accepted as sufficient excuse for her crime. A polite lie had been written to her husband, a banker of power in the city. To her, the proprietor of the store was even now apologizing in courteous phrases of regret.... And Mary Turner had been sentenced to three years in prison. Sadie shook her head in dolorous doubt, as she again bent over the keys of her typewriter. Certainly, some happenings in this world of ours did not seem quite fair.
CHAPTER V. THE VICTIM OF THE LAW.
It was on this same day that Sarah, on one of her numerous trips through the store in behalf of Gilder, was accosted by a salesgirl, whose name, Helen Morris, she chanced to know. It was in a spot somewhere out of the crowd, so that for the moment the two were practically alone. The salesgirl showed signs of embarrassment as she ventured to lay a detaining hand on Sarah's arm, but she maintained her position, despite the secretary's manner of disapproval.
"What on earth do you want?" Sarah inquired, snappishly.
The salesgirl put her question at once.
"What did they do to Mary Turner?"
"Oh, that!" the secretary exclaimed, with increased impatience over the delay, for she was very busy, as always. "You will all know soon enough."
"Tell me now." The voice of the girl was singularly compelling; there was something vividly impressive about her just now, though her pallid, prematurely mature face and the thin figure in the regulation black dress and white apron showed ordinarily only insignificant. "Tell me now," she repeated, with a monotonous emphasis that somehow moved Sarah to obedience against her will, greatly to her own surprise.
"They sent her to prison for three years," she answered, sharply.
"Three years?" The salesgirl had repeated the words in a tone that was indefinable, yet a tone vehement in its incredulous questioning. "Three years?" she said again, as one refusing to believe.
"Yes," Sarah said, impressed by the girl's earnestness; "three years."
"Good God!" There was no irreverence in the exclamation that broke from the girl's lips. Instead, only a tense horror that touched to the roots of emotion.
Sarah regarded this display of feeling on the part of the young woman before her with an increasing astonishment. It was not in her own nature to be demonstrative, and such strong expression of emotion as this she deemed rather suspicious. She recalled, in addition, the fact that his was not the first time that Helen Morris had shown a particular interest in the fate of Mary Turner. Sarah wondered why.
"Say," she demanded, with the directness habitual to her, "why are you so anxious about it? This is the third time you have asked me about Mary Turner. What's it to you, I'd like to know?"
The salesgirl started violently, and a deep flush drove the accustomed pallor from her cheeks. She was obviously much disturbed by the question.
"What is it to me?" she repeated in an effort to gain time. "Why, nothing—nothing at all!" Her expression of distress lightened a little as she hit on an excuse that might serve to justify her interest. "Nothing at all, only—she's a friend of mine, a great friend of mine. Oh, yes!" Then, in an instant, the look of relief vanished, as once again the terrible reality hammered on her consciousness, and an overwhelming dejection showed in the dull eyes and in the drooping curves of the white lips. There was a monotone of desolation as she went on speaking in a whisper meant for the ears of no other. "It's awful—three years! Oh, I didn't understand! It's awful!—awful!" With the final word, she hurried off, her head bowed. She was still murmuring brokenly, incoherently. Her whole attitude was of wondering grief.
Sarah stared after the girl in complete mystification. She could not at first guess any possible cause for an emotion so poignant. Presently, however, her shrewd, though very prosaic, commonsense suggested a simple explanation of the girl's extraordinary distress.
"I'll bet that girl has been tempted to steal. But she didn't, because she was afraid." With this satisfactory conclusion of her wonderment, the secretary hurried on her way, quite content. It never occurred to her that the girl might have been tempted to steal—and had not resisted the temptation.
It was on account of this brief conversation with the salesgirl that Sarah was thinking intently of Mary Turner, after her return to the office, from which Gilder himself happened to be absent for the moment. As the secretary glanced up at the opening of the door, she did not at first recognize the figure outlined there. She remembered Mary Turner as a tall, slender girl, who showed an underlying vitality in every movement, a girl with a face of regular features, in which was a complexion of blended milk and roses, with a radiant joy of life shining through all her arduous and vulgar conditions. Instead of this, now, she saw a frail form that stood swaying in the opening of the doorway, that bent in a sinister fashion which told of bodily impotence, while the face was quite bloodless. And, too, there was over all else a pall of helplessness—helplessness that had endured much, and must still endure infinitely more.
As a reinforcement of the dread import of that figure of wo, a man stood beside it, and one of his hands was clasped around the girl's wrist, a man who wore his derby hat somewhat far back on his bullet-shaped head, whose feet were conspicuous in shoes with very heavy soles and very square toes.
It was the man who now took charge of the situation. Cassidy, from Headquarters, spoke in a rough, indifferent voice, well suited to his appearance of stolid strength.
"The District Attorney told me to bring this girl here on my way to the Grand Central Station with her."
Sarah got to her feet mechanically. Somehow, from the raucous notes of the policeman's voice, she understood in a flash of illumination that the pitiful figure there in the doorway was that of Mary Turner, whom she had remembered so different, so frightfully different. She spoke with a miserable effort toward her usual liveliness.
"Mr. Gilder will be right back. Come in and wait." She wished to say something more, something of welcome or of mourning, to the girl there, but she found herself incapable of a single word for the moment, and could only stand dumb while the man stepped forward, with his charge following helplessly in his clutch.
The two went forward very slowly, the officer, carelessly conscious of his duty, walking with awkward steps to suit the feeble movements of the girl, the girl letting herself be dragged onward, aware of the futility of any resistance to the inexorable power that now had her in its grip, of which the man was the present agent. As the pair came thus falteringly into the center of the room, Sarah at last found her voice for an expression of sympathy.
"I'm sorry, Mary," she said, hesitatingly. "I'm terribly sorry, terribly sorry!"
The girl, who had halted when the officer halted, as a matter of course, did not look up. She stood still, swaying a little as if from weakness. Her voice was lifeless.
"Are you?" she said. "I did not know. Nobody has been near me the whole time I have been in the Tombs." There was infinite pathos in the tones as she repeated the words so fraught with dreadfulness. "Nobody has been near me!"
The secretary felt a sudden glow of shame. She realized the justice of that unconscious accusation, for, till to-day, she had had no thought of the suffering girl there in the prison. To assuage remorse, she sought to give evidence as to a prevalent sympathy.
"Why," she exclaimed, "there was Helen Morris to-day! She has been asking about you again and again. She's all broken up over your trouble."
But the effort on the secretary's part was wholly without success.
"Who is Helen Morris?" the lifeless voice demanded. There was no interest in the question.
Sarah experienced a momentary astonishment, for she was still remembering the feverish excitement displayed by the salesgirl, who had declared herself to be a most intimate friend of the convict. But the mystery was to remain unsolved, since Gilder now entered the office. He walked with the quick, bustling activity that was ordinarily expressed in his every movement. He paused for an instant, as he beheld the two visitors in the center of the room, then he spoke curtly to the secretary, while crossing to his chair at the desk.
"You may go, Sarah. I will ring when I wish you again."
There followed an interval of silence, while the secretary was leaving the office and the girl with her warder stood waiting on his pleasure. Gilder cleared his throat twice in an embarrassment foreign to him, before finally he spoke to the girl. At last, the proprietor of the store expressed himself in a voice of genuine sympathy, for the spectacle of wo presented there before his very eyes moved him to a real distress, since it was indeed actual, something that did not depend on an appreciation to be developed out of imagination.
"My girl," Gilder said gently—his hard voice was softened by an honest regret—"my girl, I am sorry about this."
"You should be!" came the instant answer. Yet, the words were uttered with a total lack of emotion. It seemed from their intonation that the speaker voiced merely a statement concerning a recondite matter of truth, with which sentiment had nothing whatever to do. But the effect on the employer was unfortunate. It aroused at once his antagonism against the girl. His instinct of sympathy with which he had greeted her at the outset was repelled, and made of no avail. Worse, it was transformed into an emotion hostile to the one who thus offended him by rejection of the well-meant kindliness of his address
"Come, come!" he exclaimed, testily. "That's no tone to take with me."
"Why? What sort of tone do you expect me to take?" was the retort in the listless voice. Yet, now, in the dullness ran a faint suggestion of something sinister.
"I expected a decent amount of humility from one in your position," was the tart rejoinder of the magnate.
Life quickened swiftly in the drooping form of the girl. Her muscles tensed. She stood suddenly erect, in the vigor of her youth again. Her face lost in the same second its bleakness of pallor. The eyes opened widely, with startling abruptness, and looked straight into those of the man who had employed her.
"Would you be humble," she demanded, and now her voice was become softly musical, yet forbidding, too, with a note of passion, "would you be humble if you were going to prison for three years—for something you didn't do?"
There was anguish in the cry torn from the girl's throat in the sudden access of despair. The words thrilled Gilder beyond anything that he had supposed possible in such case. He found himself in this emergency totally at a loss, and moved in his chair doubtfully, wishing to say something, and quite unable. He was still seeking some question, some criticism, some rebuke, when he was unfeignedly relieved to hear the policeman's harsh voice.
"Don't mind her, sir," Cassidy said. He meant to make his manner very reassuring. "They all say that. They are innocent, of course! Yep—they all say it. It don't do 'em any good, but just the same they all swear they're innocent. They keep it up to the very last, no matter how right they've been got."
The voice of the girl rang clear. There was a note of insistence that carried a curious dignity of its own. The very simplicity of her statement might have had a power to convince one who listened without prejudice, although the words themselves were of the trite sort that any protesting criminal might utter.
"I tell you, I didn't do it!"
Gilder himself felt the surge of emotion that swung through these moments, but he would not yield to it. With his lack of imagination, he could not interpret what this time must mean to the girl before him. Rather, he merely deemed it his duty to carry through this unfortunate affair with a scrupulous attention to detail, in the fashion that had always been characteristic of him during the years in which he had steadily mounted from the bottom to the top.
"What's the use of all this pretense?" he demanded, sharply. "You were given a fair trial, and there's an end of it."
The girl, standing there so feebly, seeming indeed to cling for support to the man who always held her thus closely by the wrist, spoke again with an astonishing clearness, even with a sort of vivacity, as if she explained easily something otherwise in doubt.
"Oh, no, I wasn't!" she contradicted bluntly, with a singular confidence of assertion. "Why, if the trial had been fair, I shouldn't be here."
The harsh voice of Cassidy again broke in on the passion of the girl with a professional sneer.
"That's another thing they all say."
But the girl went on speaking fiercely, impervious to the man's coarse sarcasm, her eyes, which had deepened almost to purple, still fixed piercingly on Gilder, who, for some reason wholly inexplicable to him, felt himself strangely disturbed under that regard.
"Do you call it fair when the lawyer I had was only a boy—one whom the court told me to take, a boy trying his first case—my case, that meant the ruin of my life? My lawyer! Why, he was just getting experience—getting it at my expense!" The girl paused as if exhausted by the vehemence of her emotion, and at last the sparkling eyes drooped and the heavy lids closed over them. She swayed a little, so that the officer tightened his clasp on her wrist.
There followed a few seconds of silence. Then Gilder made an effort to shake off the feeling that had so possessed him, and to a certain degree he succeeded.
"The jury found you guilty," he asserted, with an attempt to make his voice magisterial in its severity.
Instantly, Mary was aroused to a new outburst of protest. Once again, her eyes shot their fires at the man seated behind the desk, and she went forward a step imperiously, dragging the officer in her wake.
"Yes, the jury found me guilty," she agreed, with fine scorn in the musical cadences of her voice. "Do you know why? I can tell you, Mr. Gilder. It was because they had been out for three hours without reaching a decision. The evidence didn't seem to be quite enough for some of them, after all. Well, the judge threatened to lock them up all night. The men wanted to get home. The easy thing to do was to find me guilty, and let it go at that. Was that fair, do you think? And that's not all, either. Was it fair of you, Mr. Gilder? Was it fair of you to come to the court this morning, and tell the judge that I should be sent to prison as a warning to others?"
A quick flush burned on the massive face of the man whom she thus accused, and his eyes refused to meet her steady gaze of reproach.
"You know!" he exclaimed, in momentary consternation. Again, her mood had affected his own, so that through a few hurrying seconds he felt himself somehow guilty of wrong against this girl, so frank and so rebuking.
"I heard you in the courtroom," she said. "The dock isn't very far from the bench where you spoke to the judge about my case. Yes, I heard you. It wasn't: Did I do it? Or, didn't I do it? No; it was only that I must be made a warning to others."
Again, silence fell for a tense interval. Then, finally, the girl spoke in a different tone. Where before her voice had been vibrant with the instinct of complaint against the mockery of justice under which she suffered, now there was a deeper note, that of most solemn truth.
"Mr. Gilder," she said simply, "as God is my judge, I am going to prison for three years for something I didn't do."
But the sincerity of her broken cry fell on unheeding ears. The coarse nature of the officer had long ago lost whatever elements of softness there might have been to develop in a gentler occupation. As for the owner of the store, he was not sufficiently sensitive to feel the verity in the accents of the speaker. Moreover, he was a man who followed the conventional, with never a distraction due to imagination and sympathy. Just now, too, he was experiencing a keen irritation against himself because of the manner in which he had been sensible to the influence of her protestation, despite his will to the contrary. That irritation against himself only reacted against the girl, and caused him to steel his heart to resist any tendency toward commiseration. So, this declaration of innocence was made quite in vain—indeed, served rather to strengthen his disfavor toward the complainant, and to make his manner harsher when she voiced the pitiful question over which she had wondered and grieved.
"Why did you ask the judge to send me to prison?"
"The thieving that has been going on in this store for over a year has got to stop," Gilder answered emphatically, with all his usual energy of manner restored. As he spoke, he raised his eyes and met the girl's glance fairly. Thought of the robberies was quite enough to make him pitiless toward the offender.
"Sending me to prison won't stop it," Mary Turner said, drearily.
"Perhaps not," Gilder sternly retorted. "But the discovery and punishment of the other guilty ones will." His manner changed to a business-like alertness. "You sent word to me that you could tell me how to stop the thefts in the store. Well, my girl, do this, and, while I can make no definite promise, I'll see what can be done about getting you out of your present difficulty." He picked up a pencil, pulled a pad of blank paper convenient to his hand, and looked at the girl expectantly, with aggressive inquiry in his gaze. "Tell me now," he concluded, "who were your pals?"
The matter-of-fact manner of this man who had unwittingly wronged her so frightfully was the last straw on the girl's burden of suffering. Under it, her patient endurance broke, and she cried out in a voice of utter despair that caused Gilder to start nervously, and even impelled the stolid officer to a frown of remonstrance.
"I have no pals!" she ejaculated, furiously. "I never stole anything in my life. Must I go on telling you over and over again?" Her voice rose in a wail of misery. "Oh, why won't any one believe me?"
Gilder was much offended by this display of an hysterical grief, which seemed to his phlegmatic temperament altogether unwarranted by the circumstances. He spoke decisively.
"Unless you can control yourself, you must go." He pushed away the pad of paper, and tossed the pencil aside in physical expression of his displeasure. "Why did you send that message, if you have nothing to say?" he demanded, with increasing choler.
But now the girl had regained her former poise. She stood a little drooping and shaken, where for a moment she had been erect and tensed. There was a vast weariness in her words as she answered.
"I have something to tell you, Mr. Gilder," she said, quietly. "Only, I—I sort of lost my grip on the way here, with this man by my side."
"Most of 'em do, the first time," the officer commented, with a certain grim appreciation.
"Well?" Gilder insisted querulously, as the girl hesitated.
At once, Mary went on speaking, and now a little increase of vigor trembled in her tones.
"When you sit in a cell for three months waiting for your trial, as I did, you think a lot. And, so, I got the idea that if I could talk to you, I might be able to make you understand what's really wrong. And if I could do that, and so help out the other girls, what has happened to me would not, after all, be quite so awful—so useless, somehow." Her voice lowered to a quick pleading, and she bent toward the man at the desk. "Mr. Gilder," she questioned, "do you really want to stop the girls from stealing?"
"Most certainly I do," came the forcible reply.
The girl spoke with a great earnestness, deliberately.
"Then, give them a fair chance."
The magnate stared in sincere astonishment over this absurd, this futile suggestion for his guidance.
"What do you mean?" he vociferated, with rising indignation. There was an added hostility in his demeanor, for it seemed to him that this thief of his goods whom he had brought to justice was daring to trifle with him. He grew wrathful over the suspicion, but a secret curiosity still held his temper within bounds "What do you mean?" he repeated; and now the full force of his strong voice set the room trembling.
The tones of the girl came softly musical, made more delicately resonant to the ear by contrast with the man's roaring.
"Why," she said, very gently, "I mean just this: Give them a living chance to be honest."
"A living chance!" The two words were exploded with dynamic violence. The preposterousness of the advice fired Gilder with resentment so pervasive that through many seconds he found himself unable to express the rage that flamed within him.
The girl showed herself undismayed by his anger.
"Yes," she went on, quietly; "that's all there is to it. Give them a living chance to get enough food to eat, and a decent room to sleep in, and shoes that will keep their feet off the pavement winter mornings. Do you think that any girl wants to steal? Do you think that any girl wants to risk——?"
By this time, however, Gilder had regained his powers of speech, and he interrupted stormily.
"And is this what you have taken up my time for? You want to make a maudlin plea for guilty, dishonest girls, when I thought you really meant to bring me facts."
Nevertheless, Mary went on with her arraignment uncompromisingly. There was a strange, compelling energy in her inflections that penetrated even the pachydermatous officer, so that, though he thought her raving, he let her rave on, which was not at all his habit of conduct, and did indeed surprise him mightily. As for Gilder, he felt helpless in some puzzling fashion that was totally foreign to his ordinary self. He was still glowing with wrath over the method by which he had been victimized into giving the girl a hearing. Yet, despite his chagrin, he realized that he could not send her from him forthwith. By some inexplicable spell she bound him impotent.
"We work nine hours a day," the quiet voice went on, a curious pathos in the rich timbre of it; "nine hours a day, for six days in the week. That's a fact, isn't it? And the trouble is, an honest girl can't live on six dollars a week. She can't do it, and buy food and clothes, and pay room-rent and carfare. That's another fact, isn't it?"
Mary regarded the owner of the store with grave questioning in her violet eyes. Under the urgency of emotion, color crept into the pallid cheeks, and now her face was very beautiful—so beautiful, indeed, that for a little the charm of its loveliness caught the man's gaze, and he watched her with a new respect, born of appreciation for her feminine delightfulness. The impression was far too brief. Gilder was not given to esthetic raptures over women. Always, the business instinct was the dominant. So, after the short period of amazed admiration over such unexpected winsomeness, his thoughts flew back angrily to the matters whereof she spoke so ridiculously.
"I don't care to discuss these things," he declared peremptorily, as the girl remained silent for a moment.
"And I have no wish to discuss anything," Mary returned evenly. "I only want to give you what you asked for—facts." A faint smile of reminiscence curved the girl's lips. "When they first locked me up," she explained, without any particular evidence of emotion, "I used to sit and hate you."
"Oh, of course!" came the caustic exclamation from Gilder.
"And then, I thought that perhaps you did not understand," Mary continued; "that, if I were to tell you how things really are, it might be you would change them somehow."
At this ingenuous statement, the owner of the store gave forth a gasp of sheer stupefaction.
"I!" he cried, incredulously. "I change my business policy because you ask me to!"
There was something imperturbable in the quality of the voice as the girl went resolutely forward with her explanation. It was as if she were discharging a duty not to be gainsaid, not to be thwarted by any difficulty, not even the realization that all the effort must be ultimately in vain.
"Do you know how we girls live?—but, of course, you don't. Three of us in one room, doing our own cooking over the two-burner gas-stove, and our own washing and ironing evenings, after being on our feet for nine hours."
The enumeration of the sordid details left the employer absolutely unmoved, since he lacked the imagination necessary to sympathize actually with the straining evil of a life such as the girl had known. Indeed, he spoke with an air of just remonstrance, as if the girl's charges were mischievously faulty.
"I have provided chairs behind the counters," he stated.
There was no especial change in the girl's voice as she answered his defense. It continued musically low, but there was in it the insistent note of sincerity.
"But have you ever seen a girl sitting in one of them?" she questioned, coldly. "Please answer me. Have you? Of course not," she said, after a little pause during which the owner had remained silent. She shook her head in emphatic negation. "And do you understand why? It's simply because every girl knows that the manager of her department would think he could get along without her, if he were to see her sitting down ——loafing, you know! So, she would be discharged. All it amounts to is that, after being on her feet for nine hours, the girl usually walks home, in order to save carfare. Yes, she walks, whether sick or well. Anyhow, you are generally so tired, it don't make much difference which you are."
Gilder was fuming under these strictures, which seemed to him altogether baseless attacks on himself. His exasperation steadily waxed against the girl, a convicted felon, who thus had the audacity to beard him.
"What has all this to do with the question of theft in the store?" he rumbled, huffily. "That was the excuse for your coming here. And, instead of telling me something, you rant about gas-stoves and carfare."
The inexorable voice went on in its monotone, as if he had not spoken.
"And, when you are really sick, and have to stop work, what are you going to do then? Do you know, Mr. Gilder, that the first time a straight girl steals, it's often because she had to have a doctor—or some luxury like that? And some of them do worse than steal. Yes, they do—girls that started straight, and wanted to stay that way. But, of course, some of them get so tired of the whole grind that—that——"
The man who was the employer of hundreds concerning whom these grim truths were uttered, stirred uneasily in his chair, and there came a touch of color into the healthy brown of his cheeks as he spoke his protest.
"I'm not their guardian. I can't watch over them after they leave the store. They are paid the current rate of wages—as much as any other store pays." As he spoke, the anger provoked by this unexpected assault on him out of the mouth of a convict flamed high in virtuous repudiation. "Why," he went on vehemently, "no man living does more for his employees than I do. Who gave the girls their fine rest-rooms upstairs? I did! Who gave them the cheap lunch-rooms? I did!"