BURROWS used to go for his midday meal to a little restaurant on Ann Street. It was one of those places where you walk up and down before a long counter, taking from it whatever you want to eat — rather, whatever you are going to eat: at this end a sandwich, in the middle a hard-boiled egg, farther on a piece of pie, at the other end a glass of milk or a cup of coffee tendered by a tired-looking creature with a pompadour too high and too yellow. Burrows had this sort of meal — which was lunch, not luncheon — because it was cheap: an all-sufficient reason, for Burrows had a wife and a baby, and a house in a small sad town with a large cheerful name just beyond Newark.
When he had accumulated his several articles of food at the counter, he would walk very slowly and cautiously, so as not to spill anything, to a chair near the street door. There he would seat himself and eat. Opposite him was the cashier’s desk. Everybody, after eating, walked past this desk and put the money that he owed upon the round rubber mat; everybody was supposed to be honest and pay just the right amount. New York can’t be wholly bad, because the men who own these honor-system restaurants have huge fortunes and take their luncheon — not lunch — at Fifth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, where, ’t is said, a waiter runs quickly to make an inventory of the silver when a guest has left the table.
This day that we have in mind was in February. It was cold and dry and clear, one of those days that New Yorkers boast of when they go abroad, a present delight which makes the yesterday of darkness and drizzle seem months away. As he leaned back in his chair, Burrows saw that the desk by the door had a strange mistress. Now, this was a considerable break in the monotony of life, for Burrows sat in this chair six days in the week, fifty weeks in the year, and the view from it was always the same, and always dull. Moreover, the new cashier was a particularly pleasing sight.
She held her chin up, and looked straight ahead with gray eyes that twinkled cordially, not at any individual human being, but at the world in general. Indeed, they seemed to lose their merriment, and drop diffidently, only when they met some other pair of eyes fixed on them. Her cheeks had a ruddy glow as if she had been walking rapidly through the winter air outside. Her mouth, gracefully curving, suggested capabilities of much good-humor. Her hair was an undistinguished brown, arranged in simple fashion. Altogether she was uncommonly pretty, with the kind of prettiness that goes with health and a blithe heart. At a guess, one would have said the girl was eighteen years old, and just in from the country.
It was easy to see that she was fresh at her task. True, there was little for her to do, — take the money off the mat, observe the amount, put it in a drawer, and press a button, — but she was as deeply absorbed as if she had been trying to solve some intricate problem. Her fingers handled the coins carefully, not with the facile nonchalance that comes of familiarity. When there were three or four men in line at once, moving forward somewhat impatiently, to pay and be gone, she became excited, the glow in her cheeks darkened to a flush, and her hands trembled nervously. To the man watching her from his chair it seemed that this must be her first day at any kind of wageearning.
Burrows saw the manager of the restaurant sauntering toward him, and experienced, as usual, a moment of displeasure. This was one of those eatinghouse managers who apply themselves assiduously to cultivating the acquaintance of their patrons, and at the third or fourth encounter lay aside mere hospitality for a nearer and dearer intimacy.
“ Good-day, Mr. Burrows,” he said, with an ingratiating smile. He leaned over slightly, half whispering, “ You see, we have a new cashier to-day.”
“ Yes, I see you have,” Burrows answered indifferently.
“She’s new in the city, too, — just come in from some up-state village. Nicelooking little girl, eh ? ”
The manager walked on to his next victim. Burrows’s attention was attracted, a minute later, by a conversation at his elbow. He could see the man nearest him, a youth with a high collar, a tie of many colors, and one of those unspeakable derby hats with perfectly flat, narrow brims.
“ Gee, she’s a peach! ” the youth was saying, the words emerging with some difficulty through fragments of soggy pie.
“ You can see she’s not on to the job yet,” returned the other. “ She’s not used to handling the coin; look at her fingers.”
Burrows was spared the rest of this edifying dialogue by the departure of the two. Soon after they had gone he, too, arose, brushed the crumbs from his trousers, joined the procession by the cashier’s desk, paid, and went back to work.
The second day after the girl’s arrival, a presumptuous young person addressed some remark to her as he paused before the desk. What it was Burrows could not hear, but the insinuating leer that accompanied it indicated plainly an attempt at flirtation. She answered nothing, but gave the fellow a frown which sent him hurrying, shamefacedly, toward the door. In the week that followed her nervousness disappeared, and she received the money over the desk with deftness and composure. She seemed to be actually happy. A routine that reached the limit of monotony had no power, if one might judge from her manner, to deaden the joy of living. For each as he passed she had a cheerful, impersonal little nod, with a smile to match. In the big, dark room, where gas lamps were burning even in the middle of the day, the cashier was the one reminder that the world still held such things as sunlight and green fields and flowers.
Many pairs of eyes were turned upon her approvingly, but she was all unaware, apparently, of the admiration she excited. Her attention was only for the man immediately in front of her; and her greeting for him was the same she had given the one before and the same she would give the next behind. Pleasant though it might be, it was, after all, a matter of business, part of the day’s work, and none might take undue pride from it. For all the notice they received from the girl at the desk, the men still sitting and eating, not yet ready to join the line, were so much empty air.
For three, four, five weeks Burrows saw no change in the looks or the bearing of the cashier. It was about the beginning of the sixth that he discerned a faint trace of weariness. It showed in the corners of her mouth. Usually eager, when summoned by the eyes to join in a smile, now they responded listlessly. Her greetings lacked some of the spontaneity which had marked them heretofore. When there was a moment’s pause in her work, she turned and looked absently through the big glass door at the colorless stream of people.
Now, Burrows was a tender-hearted young man, and it saddened him to see the girl looking tired. He had never spoken to her, and probably never would speak to her, and he did not even know her name, yet he could not help feeling sorry. For he had been living in the city several years, and had kept his eyes open, and he was afraid that the cashier’s weariness would not pass away at once. Nobody had told him what her pay was, but he thought he could guess within fifty cents of it, anyway. Where did she live ? he wondered, and there appeared to him a four-story house on a long crosstown block, any one of a million houses on any one of a thousand blocks. The mistress of the establishment had a bunch of keys hung at her belt, and she had a graduated assortment of expressions, — graduated according to her estimate of the purse of the man or woman whom she faced. In the hall on each floor was a dim gas-light, and at each end of the hall was a room just nine feet long and five and a half feet wide. And in the room — but why multiply the details ? He who knows these places wants to hear no more of them; he who knows them not, is happy for it,— let us not disturb him.
Within a few days Burrows had become accustomed to the tired look in the girl’s face; her new appearance became the natural one now. As a matter of fact, it was not alarmingly different, and it is doubtful if many of the patrons of Ralston’s Rapid Restaurant noticed that the smile of greeting was more mechanical and the brow a little less smooth than before. The well-formed features were still there, and few had time to observe that the cordiality was somewhat forced.
It must have been about the end of April that Burrows saw one of the men stop at the desk, after paying, and speak to the cashier. Instead of dismissing him abruptly, as she had dismissed another several weeks before, she replied in a friendly manner. There was nothing bold or offensive about it, — it was only different, to one who remembered. They chatted pleasantly for a minute or two, and then the man left. After that these little chats became common. Any one who happened to reach the desk alone was apt to stop and pass pleasantries with the girl. She lost the timidity which she had brought with her from the country, and returned the men’s banter with a facility which many acquire only after much longer practice. Certainly she acted as one who enjoyed life; maybe she did enjoy it, more now than when she had been so exclusive. If Burrow’s had mentioned, that May, his suspicion that the skin under her eyes was not as clear as it should have been, and that her cheeks were getting a little paler, his companions at luncheon would have laughed at him.
The hot weather came on, and the society columns in the daily newspapers told how everybody who was anybody was out of town. Ann Street seemed horridly stuffy, except when you stepped into it out of the restaurant, and then it seemed delightfully cool by contrast. The cashier, of course, not being anybody, was there every day; but Burrows, being a little nearer somebody, stopped work for two weeks and took his wife and baby down to Asbury Park.
These two weeks were unusually hot, and the mercury was still near the ninety mark on the Monday when Burrows got back to the city. He settled himself at his desk, to begin another fifty weeks of toil, and at half-past twelve o’clock he went to Ralston’s for lunch. It was sweltering inside. An air of hopelessness pervaded the place; the man and the woman behind the long counter moved wearily when their service was required; two electric fans up under the ceiling revolved with a solemn deliberateness, not disturbing the odorous atmosphere surrounding them; despondent-looking, bedraggled mops, left in the corners, expressed, mutely but thoroughly, the humor of everybody in the room.
Having seated himself, Burrows turned his eyes upon the cashier. He was astonished at the change which had come over her in a fortnight. Her mouth positively drooped, and little lines ran out from the corners. The eyes were those of one who had hunted sleep, in the sultry nights, and found little of it. What was more noticeable, the girl seemed to have given up, as too much for her strength, the attempt at cheerfulness. The dimes and nickels were handled by fingers which had no springiness left in them. Even to Burrows, who had seen earlier signs that others had not, her new appearance came as a shock. The hot weather — in a place like this, too — must have done it. It would help if she could only get away for a couple of weeks, he thought; but he knew she would n’t.
It grew cooler, soon, and the girl, along with others, sat up straighter, and breathed and moved more easily. But she was not the girl of the early spring. Seeing her when she was alone at the desk, one could fancy that she had begun to consider what the round of her life really was, to reflect upon the dreariness and monotony of it, and, maybe, to cultivate a silent rebellion of spirit. There was the faintest suggestion of defiance about her. Opportunities to talk with the men were seized upon with more avidity, as though they furnished the only respite from a dull task. Her “offishness ” was quite gone, and some of those who patronized the restaurant ventured, without reproof, to call her by her first name.
The change in the cashier’s manner and bearing had been so gradual that, from day to day, there had seemed to be practically no change at all. One who carried his office troubles to lunch with him, and thought upon them while he ate, would probably not have observed any difference; but Burrows made the effort, successful sometimes if not always, to leave his work behind him at the midday recess. He, therefore, had the leisure as well as the taste for observing closely those about him, and he found it hard to realize that the self-contained person to whom he paid his reckoning in August, and the flushed, timid girl who had fumbled over his change in February, were one and the same. Her clothes, cheap though they were, now had a modish way about them, the label of the city. Her hair was piled toward the front of her head, and the loose ends were gathered up uncompromisingly. A ring, rather too bulky, encircled one of the fingers of her left hand.
Burrows was hurrying toward the ferry one afternoon in the latter part of September, when he saw, just ahead of him, a figure that looked familiar. A moment afterward he recognized Ralston’s cashier, though her back was toward him. She was with a man. At the next corner the pair walked quickly up the stairs to the elevated station. As Burrows passed beneath he heard her laugh merrily and make some remark about a play which, apparently, they were to see that evening. She must have enjoyed it, for next day her spirits were better than they had been for many weeks. She acted as if new possibilities of pleasure had, all at once, been opened up to her.
It did not seem to be the same brand of happiness, though, which she had brought with her from the country. There was something less reposeful about the cashier’s humor now, an air of nervousness which bespoke, always, anticipation of some future pleasure rather than content with the present. This new humor brought no return of clear skin and unweary mouth; indeed, its effect seemed to be quite the opposite. The girl’s face thinned, in the fall months, until it was positively haggard. No longer was it necessary for one to be observant to notice the change in her appearance. The men who ate at Ralston’s began to comment upon it; some even ventured to mention it to her, and advised her, half jocularly, to take better care of herself.
Another time Burrows happened to see her away from her desk. It was on one of those rare occasions when he brought his wife to the theatre in the city. The play was over, and they were coming out into the dazzling light of the street. Across their path, almost within arm’s reach, a man and woman passed, arm in arm. Burrows caught a glimpse of the woman’s face, and then she was gone. He recalled, later, that she had around her neck a large fur boa. This was in November.
A week or so before Christmas the men who ate at Ralston’s were snickering, and nudging one another waggishly, over the change in the cashier’s hair. Formerly a dull brown, it had, of a sudden, acquired a new lustre. Burrows looked, and shook his head sadly.
“ It’s not even cleverly done,” he said to himself.
Within a few days, though, the deadly chemical was applied more thoroughly. The hair close to the scalp was treated, and there were left no uncolored strands to tell the tale of deception. Now Ralston’s Rapid Restaurant had a golden-haired cashier. The sophistication of her appearance had received the final touch.
If any of the facetious comment anent the transformation reached her ears, she gave no sign of it. Unembarrassed, she faced all comers with a confidence that no stares could disturb. More men stopped at the desk than formerly. As the rôle of entertainer grew more engrossing, the duties of a cashier grew more troublesome. Even the hand that made change — only one hand was needed now — seemed to have an offended air whenever it was called upon to move. Two or three of the men had, by this time, achieved special favor, and to them was permitted a greater familiarity than to the rest. They always lingered for several minutes after eating, and observed with condescending airs others who were less favored.
During the winter, at Ralston’s, everything went on with the uneventful smoothness of prosperity. The gloomy room had all its chairs occupied in the middle of the day. Sometimes the men came in shivering, from a dry, bracing cold; sometimes they came stamping and scraping their feet, from a pavement covered with halffrozen slush. But they always came, for a man must eat even if he has to eat at Ralston’s. The cashier was regular in attendance; and her hair kept, successfully, its new color.
For a while her altered appearance irritated Burrows; he resented the fact that her presence was so in accord with the general atmosphere of the place, that she no longer reminded him of fresh air and green fields and flowers. Of course, he might have changed his seat and thus have avoided seeing her, but he would not admit that so trivial a thing could disturb him to that extent. It was not long, naturally enough, before irritation was supplanted by indifference. There was nothing about the girl, now, to interest him. The cashier was simply the cashier, a self-composed young woman who dressed too conspicuously, — one of thousands.
So it was for two or three months.
By the beginning of March he had almost forgotten that she had ever been other than what she now was. Then, one Monday, as he sat down and unfolded his paper napkin, he looked up and saw that the yellow-haired, sophisticated person was gone. At the desk sat a young girl who was strange to Ralston’s. In her cheeks was the glow of perfect health, in her eyes a speculative, half-timid interest in everything about her. She radiated hope and innocence.
Her fingers handled the coins with a clumsiness that was eloquent of inexperience. Lost in the difficulties of her task, she had no time to notice the admiring glances of the men. Those who had finished filed by, placed their money upon the mat, and departed. Those who still sat looked toward the desk with a new interest. A youth in one of the chairs in the rear row, by the wall, whispered to his companion, —
“ She’s a winner all right, ain’t she? ”
The manager of the restaurant threaded his way to Burrows and leaned over him with the manner of one giving a confidence.
“ See our new cashier, Mr. Burrows ? ” he asked in an undertone, smiling and jerking his head toward the door. “ She’s just in from the country. Nice-looking little girl, eh ? ”