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 their pages.

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 fluttering.

"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 pitifully.

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 offender.

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 the Gardens.

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 glancing sails.

"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 tenderness.

Not worthy, his little Duchess!

Then the crimson rushed into her face, and she flung up her head defiantly.

"I married the new shop-walker, four months ago!"