THE LITTLE DUCHESS.
By Ethel Turner.
"The tale is as old as the Eden tree,
And new as the new-cut tooth."
He was the clerk of the cash tramway, and when the rolling balls gave
him a moment's leisure, used to look down from his high perch at the big
shop beneath his feet, and, in his slow, quiet style, study the ways of
the numberless assistants whose life-books thus opened to him so many of
Lately there had come to the place a slight, grey-eyed girl, who wore
her black dress with such grace, and held her small head with such
dignity, that he whimsically had named her to himself "The Little
Duchess." He liked to look down and catch a glint of her hair's sunshine
when his brain was dulled with calculating change, and his fingers ached
with shutting cash-balls and dispatching them on their journeys. And he
used to wonder greatly how any customer could hesitate to buy silks and
satins when their lustre and sheen were displayed by her slim little
fingers and the quality descanted on with so persuasive a smile. There
were handsomer girls in the shop, girls with finer figures and better
features; but, to the boy in his mid-air cage, there was none with the
nameless dainty charms that made the little Duchess so lovable.
For, of course, he did love her. In less than two months he had begun to
watch for her cash-ball with a trembling eagerness, to smooth out and
stroke gently the bill her fingers had written, and to wrap it and its
change up again with a careful tenderness that no one else's change and
bill received. He had spoken to her half-a-dozen times in all; twice at
the door on leaving—weather remarks, to which she had responded
graciously; once or twice about bills that she had come to rectify at
the desk, and once he had had the great good fortune to find and return
a handkerchief she had dropped. Such a pretty, ridiculous atom of muslin
it was, with a fanciful "Nellie" taking up one quarter, and some
delicate scent lending such subtle fascination that it was a real wrench
for the lad to take the handkerchief from his breast-pocket and proffer
it to her.
So great a wrench, indeed, that he profferred his love, too, humbly, but
fervently, and received a very wondering look from the grey eyes, a
badly-concealed smile, a "Thank you" for the handkerchief, and a "No,
thank you" for the love.
He had kissed her, though, and that was some consolation afterwards to
his sore spirit, kissed her right upon the sweet, scarlet lips which had
said "No" so decidedly, and then, bold no longer, had fled the shelter
of the friendly packing-cases, and beaten a retreat to his desk aloft.
That was nearly a fortnight ago; not once since had she spoken to him,
and to-day he was feeling desperate.
It had been a very busy morning, and he had found hardly a second to
raise his eyes from his work. The one time he had looked down she had
been busy with a customer—a girl prettily dressed and golden-headed
like herself. That had been at about ten o'clock. Before twelve her
cash-box, with the notch upon it that his penknife had made, rolled down
its line, and he opened it as he had opened it twenty times that
morning; but this time it bore his fate. With the bill was a little
twisted note, on which "John Walters, private," was written, and the
boy's very heart leaped at the sight. Down below, customers wearily
waited for change, and anxiously watched for their own particular ball
while the deus ex machina read again and again, with eager eyes:
"Please will you meet me at lunch-time in the Strand? Do, if you can. I
am in trouble. You said you loved me." Then, as he began mechanically to
manipulate the waiting balls, he looked down to the accustomed place of
the little Duchess. She was pale, he saw, and her lips trembled oddly
now and again. There was a frightened look in her grey eyes, and once or
twice he thought he noticed a sparkle as of tears.
At lunch-time he actually tore through the shop and away down to the
appointed place. She was there—still pale, still nervous and
"Let us go to the Gardens. It's quieter," he said, putting a great
restraint upon himself; then, when at last they were within the gates,
"God bless you for this, Nellie."
"What?" said the girl, with uncertainty, but not looking at the plain,
rugged face that was all aglow with love for her.
"For telling me about the worry—asking me to come. Oh, God bless you,
Nellie! Now tell me."
She sat down on a seat and began to cry, quietly and miserably, till the
boy was almost beside himself. At last, between the sobs, he learned her
trouble, which was grave indeed. She and her sister had very much
wanted to go to a certain ball, and, more than that, to have new dresses
for it, of soft white Liberty silk, such as she cut off daily for
fortunate customers. But her purse was empty, so, in their emergency,
the sisters had hit upon a plan, questionable, indeed, but not
dishonestly meant. The sister came to the silk counter and purchased
thirty yards of silk, paying 15s. for it instead of £3 15s.
"That was on account; I was only taking a little credit, like other
customers," said the little Duchess, with a haughty movement of the
head. "On Saturday I was going to make out a bill for an imaginary
customer, and send the £3 up to the desk to you. Don't imagine I would
really wrong the firm by a halfpenny."
"Oh, no," cried the boy eagerly; "it's all right."
"That's not all." The girl began to cry again, hopelessly, miserably. "I
had no money to get the dresses made, and the next customer paid £2
10s., and—and—I only sent 10s. up to you—I wanted to make it just
£5 I had borrowed. I thought I might borrow enough, as I was
borrowing—don't forget, I would rather have died than have stolen the
£5, Mr. Walters."
"Of course, of course, I understand," said the cash clerk, seeing it was
a worse fix than he had imagined, but longing to take her in his arms
and kiss away the tears.
"And then that horrid Mr. Greaves, who signed first in a hurry, asked
for my book and took it for something, and then sent it up to the desk,
and the figures are all confused, and the check-leaf isn't the same as I
sent to you. I hadn't time to make it right, and when the books are
compared to-night it will be noticed, and I shall get into
trouble—and, oh, I am so miserable!" The little Duchess was sobbing
He kissed her, this time in earnest; on the lips, the cheeks, the hair,
the tear-wet eyes. He only recollected himself when a gardener's form,
and especially his smile, obtruded themselves upon their notice, and
they sat apart looking foolish until the two o'clock bells made them
hurry back to the shop.
"I'll put everything right—don't you worry," he said; and she smiled
relievedly and went to her counter.
That afternoon he did what all the other years of his life he had deemed
it impossible for him to do. He made a neat alteration in his books so
that the £5 in question would not be missed. To-morrow, he resolved, he
would take £5 of his own and pay it into the account of the firm. The
little Duchess should be his debtor, and run no more risks. But, alas,
for the morrow!
Before he had fairly taken his seat in the morning—before Nellie had
finished fastening at her neck the violets he had brought her—some
words were said at his elbow, and he slowly became aware that he—surely
it was a dream!—was being arrested for defalcations in his accounts. He
learned that for some time past the firm had been aware of considerable
discrepancies in the books, and had placed a detective-accountant in the
office. Last night, for the first time, the man had discovered, as he
thought, a clue, and had convinced the firm that in Walters he had found
The lad was ashen pale, horror stricken, as he realised how these things
must go against him. He could not drag in the name of the little
Duchess—even if he did, it would not avail him much; he certainly had
altered his books, and to mention the girl's share would only be to have
two of them brought to trial, and perhaps to gaol. The little Duchess in
gaol! That hair catching the prison-yard sunshine! That slender form
clad in the garments of shame! The boy drew a deep breath, gave one very
wistful glance at the silk counter, and then walked straight to the
manager's room, followed by the policeman.
"I took the £5 yesterday, and brought it back to-day. On my oath before
God, sir, I have never misapplied one farthing of my moneys."
His voice trembled in its eagerness, the deep-set eyes gleamed, and the
white lips worked.
"Your purpose, Walters?"
The manager looked hard, disbelieving.
"Direst need. Oh, believe me, sir, I have served you three years
honestly as man can serve—yesterday I borrowed this money and brought
it back this morning—don't ruin my whole life for that one act."
"Your pressing need yesterday?"
John drew a deep breath again.
"I—can't well tell you."
Then the heads of the firm came in, indignant at their misused trust,
and they scorned his story. The defalcations amounted to almost £50 in
all, and he had confessed to £5, which had been found upon him. Of
course, he and no other was the offender, and they must teach their
employés a lesson. So John walked down that long shop by the side of the
official, his head very erect, his face pale, and his knees shaking; all
his life he would remember the glances of pity, curiosity, and disdain
that met him on every side. As he passed the silk counter, the little
Duchess was measuring a great piece of rose-red, sheeny satin, that
gleamed warm and beautiful beneath her hands. She was very white, and in
her eyes was a look of abject horror and entreaty; his eyes reassured
her, and he passed on and out of the door. All his life he would
remember that rose-red satin and its brilliant, glancing lights.
After the trial everyone thought him fortunate to get only two years,
and the little Duchess, who had grown thin and old-looking in the
interval, breathed freely as she read the account in the papers, and saw
that her name was not even mentioned in connection with the matter. He
wrote to her a loving, boyish letter, and told her she must be true to
him till he came out, and that then they would be married and go away
where this could never be heard of.
It was no small thing he had done for her, he knew; and, as he was not
more than human, he expected his reward. And the little Duchess had
cried quietly over the letter, and for several days cut off silk and
satin with a pensive, unhappy look that quite touched her
customers—those few among them who realised that it was human flesh and
blood at the other side of the yard measure.
Twenty months later the little Duchess was at the same counter measuring
silk and satin for the stock-taking, when a note was brought to her in a
writing she remembered too well.
"I got out to-day, Nellie. Come down to the Gardens in the lunch-time."
She hesitated when the time came, but he might come to the shop, and
that would never do. So she put her hat on thoughtfully and set out for
He was awaiting her on the seat where, nearly two years ago, the
gardener had smiled at them. He stood up as she came slowly towards him,
and for a minute they gazed at each other without speaking.
She was in black, of course, but fresh and dainty-looking, with a bunch
of white chiffon at her throat, little tan shoes on her feet, and her
hair showing golden against the black of her lace hat.
For him, his face had altered and hardened; the once thick, curling hair
was horribly short, his hands were rough and unsightly, his clothes hung
awkwardly upon him, and his linen was doubtful.
"The little Duchess!" he said, dully; then he put out his hand, took her
small gloved one, and looked at it curiously.
"I—I am glad you're out," she said, carefully looking away from him.
"Yes—we must be married now, Nellie; that's all I've had to think about
all this awful time."
His face flushed a little and his eyes lightened.
"It's good not to see the walls," he added, looking round at the
spring's brave show, then away to the blue sparkle in the bay and the
"We mustn't talk of that time, though, ever—eh, Nellie?"
"No," she said, regarding her brown shoes intently.
His eye noted the smooth roundness of her cheek, the delicate pink that
came and went, the turn of the white neck.
"Aren't you going to kiss me, Nellie?" he said, slowly; and he drew her
a little strangely and awkwardly to him.
Then she spoke.
"I knew it wouldn't be any use, and you'd never have any money or get a
place after this. We couldn't be married on nothing, and it would only
drag you down to have me, too. I'm not worthy of you."
"Well, little Duchess," he said, softly, as she stopped and faltered; a
slow smile crept over his face, and his deep-set eyes lighted up with
Not worthy, his little Duchess!
Then the crimson rushed into her face, and she flung up her head
"I married the new shop-walker, four months ago!"