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CHAPTER IV.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MR. SLAUGHTER.

That was a curious day. More things happened on it than on any day of my life before. It was the beginning of everything and the end of some things. From morning to night there was continual movement like in the transformation scene in a pantomime. When, since one was born, nothing has taken place, and nothing changed, it makes such a difference.

I got up feeling dreadfully stale; an up-all-night sort of feeling. Not that I ever have been up all night; but I know what the sensation is like because of the descriptions I have read. Miss Ashton was disagreeable, and the girls were snappish—even Lucy Carr was short; and, I daresay, I was not too nice. But then there often is a little show of temper in the morning; it is human nature. They had all begun when I got down to breakfast, and, of course, I got black looks for that. I caught sight of Emily Purvis as I sat down. She nodded; but it struck me that she was not looking brilliant, any more than I was.

Breakfast stuck in my throat. The butter was bad as usual—cheap margarine just rank enough to make pastry taste. The bread seemed as if it had been cut for hours, it was so hard and dry. I did manage to swallow a mouthful of tea; but the water was smoked, and I do not like condensed milk which is just going off, so I could not do much even with that. On the whole I did not feel any better for the meal when I got into the shop. I am not sure that I did not feel worse; and I knew I should be sinking before dinner came. Mr. Broadley began at me at once. He set me re-packing a whole lot of stock, which he declared I had not put tidily away; which was perfectly untrue, because, as a matter of fact, it was Miss Nichols who had had it last, and it was she who had put it back again. And, anyhow, some of those trimmings, when they have been once shown, will not set neatly; they are like hats, they cannot be made to go just so.

It was past eleven, and I had not had a single customer; it was miserable weather, and perhaps that had something to do with it, because scarcely a soul came into the shop. Mr. Broadley kept me at putting the shelves in order, almost as if I had been stock-taking. Not that I cared, for I hate doing nothing; especially as, if you so much as speak to one of the other young ladies, he is fit to murder you; that is the worst of your married shopwalkers, directly a girl opens her mouth he jumps down it. Still, I did not like it all the same; because I was getting tired, and hungry too; and, when you are hungry, the only way to stave the feeling off is to be kept busy serving; then you cannot stop to think what you would like to eat.

At last, just as a customer entered the shop, and was coming toward me, up sailed Mr. Broadley.

“Miss Blyth, you’re wanted in the office.”

My heart dropped down with a thump. I had half expected it all along, but now that it had come I went queer all over. I had to catch hold of the counter to keep up straight. Miss Nichols, seeing how it was with me, whispered as she went past:

“It’s all right, Pollie, don’t you worry, it’s nothing. Buck up, old girl”

It was nice of her to try to cheer me up; but there was a choking something in my throat which prevented me from thanking her. Broadley was at me again.

“Hurry up, Miss Blyth, don’t stand mooning there. Didn’t you hear me tell you that you are wanted in the office?”

He was a bully, he was, to the finger-tips. I knew that he was smiling at me all the time; enjoying my white face, and the tremble I was in. When I got away from the counter I felt as if my knees were giving way beneath me. Everyone stared as I went past—I could have cried. They knew perfectly well that being summoned to the office during working hours meant trouble.

Outside the office was Emily Purvis, I had been wondering if she would be there, yet it was a shock to see her all the same. She was quite as much upset as I was. I knew that her nearest friends were down in Devonshire, and that she was not on the best of terms with them; so that if there was going to be serious trouble, she would be just as badly off as I was, without any friends at all. Her pretty face looked all drawn and thin, as if she were ten years older than she really was. It would only want a very little to start her tears. Her voice shook so that I could hardly make out what she said.

“Pollie, what do you think they’ll do to us?”

“I don’t know. Where’s Tom? Did he get in all right? Has he—been sent for?”

“How can I tell? I don’t know anything about Mr. Cooper. You know, Pollie, it was not my fault that I was in late.”

“So far as I know it was neither of our faults. I wonder if Tom got in all right”

“Bother Tom! It’s very hard on me. I wonder if they’ll fine us?”

Before I could answer Mr. Slaughter put his head out of the office.

“Come in there! Stop that chattering! Are you the two young women I sent for?”

We went in, standing like two guilty things. Mr. Slaughter sat at his desk.

“Which of you is Mary Blyth?”

“I am, sir.”

“Oh, you are, are you?”

He leant back in his chair, put his hands in his pockets, and looked me up and down, as if he was valuing me. He was a little man, with untidy hair and a scrubby black beard. I could not have been more afraid of him if he had been a dozen times as big. He had a way of speaking as if he would like to bite you; and as if he wished you to clearly understand that, should he have to speak again, he would take a piece clean out of you. Everybody about the place was more frightened of him than of Mr. Cardew. It was he who had made it what it was. In the beginning it had been nothing; now there were all those shops. He was a thorough man of business, without a grain of feeling in him. We all felt that he looked on us assistants as if we were so many inferior cattle, not to be compared, for instance, to the horses which drew his vans.

I could have sunk through the ground as he continued to stare at me. It was more than I could do to meet his eyes; yet something seemed to say that he did not think much of what he saw. His first words showed that I was right.

“Well, Mary Blyth, it seems that you’re an altogether good-for-nothing young woman. From what I find upon this paper it seems that there’s everything to be said against you, nothing in your favour; no good for business, no good for anything. And you look it. I can’t make out why you’ve been kept about the place so long; it points to neglect somewhere. It appears that you’re habitually irregular; three times yesterday you missed making a sale, and you know what that means. We don’t keep sales-women who send customers away empty-handed; we send them after the customers. You were impertinent to Mr. Broadley. And, to crown all, you were out last night till something like the small hours. On your return you made a riot till they let you in, and more riot when you were in. Miss Ashton, who is far too gentle, does not like to say that you had been drinking, but she says that you behaved as though you had been. In short, you’re just the type of young woman we don’t want in this establishment. You’ll go and draw whatever is due to you, if anything is due; and you’ll take yourself and your belongings off these premises inside of half an hour. That, Mary Blyth, is all I have to say to you.”

For the moment, when he had finished, I was speechless. It was all so cruel and unjust; and there was so much to be said in reply to every word he uttered, that the very volume of my defence seemed to hold me paralysed. I could only stammer out:

“It is the first time I have been reported to you, sir.”

“As I have already observed, there has evidently been neglect in that respect. The delay amounts to a failure of duty. I will make inquiries into its cause.”

“It was not my fault that I was late, sir.”

“No? Was the gentleman to blame?”

My face flamed up. I could have slapped him on the cheek. What did he mean by his insinuations?

“You have no right to speak to me like that!”

“When young women in my employment misbehave themselves as you have done I make plain speaking a rule. A man was with you, because one was seen. You can apportion the blame between you.” I could not tell him it was Tom; it might have been bad for him. “None of your airs with me; off you go. Stay! This other young woman heard me talk to you; now you shall hear me talk to her. Is your name Emily Purvis?”

“Yes, sir. It’s the first time—I never meant it—it wasn’t my fault”

Emily broke into stammering speech; he cut her short.

“Don’t you trouble yourself to talk; I’ll do all the talking that’s required. You were out after hours with Miss Blyth. I’m not going to ask any questions, and I’ll listen to no explanations; young women who scour the streets at midnight are not the sort I like. We are judged by the company we keep. You were Mary Blyth’s companion last night; you’ll be her companion again. With her, you’ll draw what is due to you; with her, you’ll clear yourself off these premises inside half an hour. Now, stop it!”

Emily began crying.

“Oh, Mr. Slaughter, I’ve done nothing! it isn’t fair! I’ve nowhere to go to!”

“Oh, yes, you have, you’ve outside this office to go to. Now, no nonsense!” He struck a hand-bell; a porter entered. “Take these young women out of this; let them have what’s due to them; see they’re off the premises inside half an hour.”

“Oh, Mr. Slaughter!” wailed Emily.

It made me so angry to see her demean herself before that unfeeling thing of wood, that I caught her by the wrist.

“Come, Emily! don’t degrade yourself by appealing to that cruel, unjust, hard-hearted man. Don’t you see that he thinks it fine sport to trample upon helpless girls?”

“Come, none of that.”

The porter put his hand upon my shoulder. Before I knew it we were out of the office and half a dozen yards away. I turned upon him in a flame of passion.

“Take your hand from off my shoulder! If you dare to touch me again you’ll be sorry!”

He was not a bad sort. He seemed scared at the sight of me.

“I don’t want to do anything to you. Only what’s the good of making a fuss? You know he’s master here.”

“And, because he’s master here, I suppose, if he tells you to behave like a miserable coward, you would?”

“What’s the use of talking? If he says you’ve got to go, you’ve got to, and there’s an end of it. You take my advice, and don’t be silly.”

“Silly! Your advice! When I ask you for your advice, you give it, not before.”

I stood and glared. I do not think he altogether liked the look of me; I am sure that had he touched me I should have flown at him, and I rather suspect he knew it. While he hesitated I heard someone speaking in loud tones in the office from which we had just now been ejected. It was a man’s voice.

“I want to see Miss Blyth.”

It was Mr. Slaughter who replied.

“I say you can’t see Miss Blyth, so you have my answer, sir.”

“But that is an answer which I am unable to accept. I must see Miss Blyth, and at once, on a matter of grave importance.”

“Don’t talk to me, sir; my time is valuable. This is neither the hour nor the place at which we are accustomed to allow a stranger to see the young women in our employ. And as, in any case, this particular young woman is no longer in our employ, I repeat that you cannot see Miss Blyth.”

“Oh, yes, you can—for here is Miss Blyth.”

Darting past the porter, who seemed pretty slow-witted, I was back again in the office. A stranger was confronting the indignant Mr. Slaughter. I had just time to see that he was not old, and that he was holding a top hat, when he turned to me.

“Are you Miss Mary Blyth?”

“I am, Mr. Slaughter knows I am.”

“My name is Paine, Frank Paine. I am a solicitor. If you are the Mary Blyth I am in search of I have a communication to make to you of considerable importance.”

“Then make it outside, sir.” This was Mr. Slaughter.

The porter appeared at the door.

“What’s the meaning of this, Sanders? Didn’t I tell you to see this young woman off the premises?”

“I was just seeing her, sir, when she slipped off before I knew it.”

I flashed round at Sanders.

“You’ve assaulted me once, don’t you dare to assault me again; this gentleman’s a solicitor. If you’re a solicitor, Mr. Paine, I want you to help me. Because I was accidentally prevented from returning till a few minutes after time last night, Mr. Slaughter wishes to send me away at a moment’s notice, without a character.”

“Is that the case, Mr. Slaughter?”

“What business is it of yours? Upon my word! I tell you again to leave my office.”

“You appear to wish to carry things off with a high hand.”

“A high hand! Mr. Slaughter thinks that he has only to lift his little finger to have us all turned into the street.”

“If that is so, he is in error. Miss Blyth is my client. As her solicitor I would advise you to be sure that you are treating her with justice.”

“Her solicitor!” Mr. Slaughter laughed. “I wish you joy of the job, you won’t make a fortune out of her!” He waved his hands. “Any communication you have to make, you make through the post. For the last time I ask you to leave my office.”

“Come, Mr. Paine, we will go. He need not ask us again. As he says, we can communicate with him through the post; and that will not necessitate our being brought into his too close neighbourhood.”

I shook the dust of the office off my feet. Mr. Paine seemed puzzled. Outside was Emily, still crying. I introduced her.

“This is Emily Purvis, another victim of Mr. Slaughter’s injustice. Emily, this is my solicitor, Mr. Paine.”

She stared, as well she might. For all I knew, it might have been a jest of his, he might not have been a solicitor at all. The truth is I was quite as anxious to carry things off with a high hand as Mr. Slaughter could be; so I held my head as high as ever I could.

“Mr. Paine, we are going to draw our salaries. They are sure to get as much out of us in fines as they can. Will you come and see that they don’t cheat us more than can be helped?”

“Fines!” Mr. Paine looked grave. “I doubt if they have any right to deduct fines without your express permission.”

So he told them. That book-keeper had a pleasant time—the wretch! He made out that the princely sum of fifteen shillings was due to each of us; and off this, he wanted to dock me nine and six, and Emily five. Mr. Paine would not have it. He put things in such a way that the book-keeper referred to Mr. Slaughter. Mr. Slaughter actually sent back word to say that he was to give us our fifteen shillings and let us go. Then Mr. Paine handed in his card, and said that if we did not receive, within four and twenty hours, a quarter’s salary in lieu of notice, proceedings would be immediately commenced for the recovery of the same.

So, in a manner of speaking, Emily and I marched off with flying colours.