"Here's where I beat it!" said Dan, but before he could make good his intention, the stout little lady on the porch had spied them and came hurrying down the walk, holding out both hands.
"Well, if here aren't my probationers!" she cried in a warm, comfortable voice which seemed to suggest that probationers were what she liked best in the world.
"Let me see, dear, your name is Mac?"
"No, ma'am, it's Dan," said that youth, trying to put out the lighted cigarette stump which he had hastily thrust into his pocket.
"Ah! to be sure! And yours is—Mary?"
"No, ma'am, it's Nance."
"Why, of course!" cried the little lady, beaming at them, "I remember perfectly."
She was scarcely taller than they were as she walked between them, with an arm about the shoulder of each. She wore a gray dress and a wide white collar pinned with a round blue pin that just matched her round blue eyes. On each side of her face was a springy white curl that bobbed up and down as she walked.
"Now," she said, with an expectant air, when they reached the house. "Where shall we begin? Something to eat?"
Her question was directed to Dan, and he flushed hotly.
"No, ma'am," he said proudly.
"Yes, ma'am," said Nance, almost in the same breath.
"I vote 'Yes,' too; so the ayes have it," said Mrs. Purely gaily, leading them through a neat hall into a neat kitchen, where they solemnly took their seats.
"My visitors always help me with the lemonade," said the purring little lady, giving Nance the lemons to roll, and Dan the ice to crack. Then as she fluttered about, she began to ask them vague and seemingly futile questions about home and school and play. Gradually their answers grew from monosyllables into sentences, until, by the time the lemonade was ready to serve, Nance was completely thawed out and Dan was getting soft around the edges. Things were on the way to positive conviviality when Mrs. Purdy suddenly turned to Nance and asked her where she went to Sunday school.
Now Sunday school had no charms for Nance. On the one occasion when curiosity had induced her to follow the stream of well-dressed children into the side door of the cathedral, she had met with disillusion. It was a place where little girls lifted white petticoats when they sat down and straightened pink sashes when they got up, and put nickels in a basket. Nance had had no lace petticoat or pink sash or nickel. She showed her discomfort by misbehaving.
"Didn't you ever go back?" asked Mrs. Purdy.
"Nome. They didn't want me. I was bad, an' the teacher said Sunday school was a place for good little girls."
"My! my!" said Mrs. Purdy, "this will never do. And how about you, Dan? Do you go?"
"Sometimes I've went," said Dan. "I like it."
While this conversation was going on Nance could not keep her eyes from the open door. There was more sky and grass out there than she had ever seen at one time before. The one green spot with which she was familiar was the neat plot of lawn on each side of the concrete walk leading into the cathedral, and that had to be viewed through a chink in the fence and was associated with the words, "Keep Out."
When all the lemonade was gone, and only one cookie left for politeness, Mrs. Purdy took them into the sitting-room where a delicate-looking man sat in a wheel-chair, carving something from a piece of wood. Nance's quick eyes took in every detail of the bright, commonplace room; its gay, flowered carpet and chintz curtains, its "fruit pieces" in wide, gold frames, and its crocheted tidies presented a new ideal of elegance.
There was a music-box on the wall in which small figures moved about to a tinkling melody; there were charm strings of bright colored buttons, and a spinning-wheel, and a pair of bellows, all of which Mrs. Purdy explained at length.
"Sister," said the man in the chair, feebly, "perhaps the children would like to see my menagerie."
"Why, dearie, of course they would," said Mrs. Purdy, "Shall I wheel you over to the cabinet?"
"I'll shove him," said Dan, making his first voluntary remark.
"There now!" said Mrs. Purdy, "see how much stronger he is than I am! And he didn't jolt you a bit, did he, dearie?"
If the room itself was interesting, the cabinet was nothing short of entrancing. It was full of carved animals in all manner of grotesque positions. And the sick gentleman knew the name of each and kept saying such funny things about them that Nance laughed hilariously, and Dan forgot the prints of his muddy feet on the bright carpet, and even gave up the effort to keep his hand over the ragged knee of his pants.
"He knows all about live animals, too," chirped Mrs. Purdy. "You'll have to come some day and go over to the park with us and see his squirrels. There's one he found with a broken leg, and he mended it as good as new."
The sun was slipping behind the trees before the children even thought of going home.
"Next Friday at three!" said Mrs. Purdy, cheerily waving them good-by. "And we are going to see who has the cleanest face and the best report."
"We sure had a good time," said Nance, as they hurried away through the dusk. "But I'll git a lickin' all right when I git home."
"I liked that there animal man," said Dan slowly, "an' them cookies."
"Well, whatever made you lie to the lady 'bout bein' hungry?"
"I never lied. She ast me if I wanted her to give me somethin' to eat. I thought she meant like a beggar. I wasn't goin' to take it that way, but I never minded takin' it like—like—company."
Nance pondered the matter for a while silently; then she asked suddenly:
"Say, Dan, if folks are borned poor white trash, they don't have to go on bein' it, do they?"
The three chief diversions in Calvary Alley, aside from fights, were funerals, arrests, and evictions. Funerals had the advantage of novelty, for life departed less frequently than it arrived: arrests were in high favor on account of their dramatic appeal, but the excitement, while intense, was usually too brief to be satisfying; for sustained interest the alley on the whole preferred evictions.
The week after Nance and Dan had reported to Mrs. Purdy, rumor traveled from house to house and from room to room that the rent man was putting the Lewises out. The piquant element in the situation lay in the absence of the chief actor. "Mis' Lewis" herself had disappeared, and nobody knew where she was or when she would return.
For many years the little cottage, sandwiched between Mr. Snawdor's "Bung and Fawcett" shop and Slap Jack's saloon had been the scandal and, it must be confessed the romance of the alley. It stood behind closed shutters, enveloped in mystery, and no visitor ventured beyond its threshold. The slender, veiled lady who flitted in and out at queer hours, and whom rumor actually accused of sometimes arriving at the corner in "a hack," was, despite ten years' residence, a complete stranger to her neighbors. She was quiet and well-behaved; she wore good clothes and shamefully neglected her child. These were the meager facts upon which gossip built a tower of conjecture.
As for Dan, he was as familiar an object in the alley as the sparrows in the gutter or the stray cats about the garbage cans. Ever since he could persuade his small legs to go the way he wanted them to, he had pursued his own course, asking nothing of anybody, fighting for his meager rights, and becoming an adept in evading the questions that seemed to constitute the entire conversation of the adult world. All that he asked of life was the chance to make a living, and this the authorities sternly forbade until he should reach that advanced age of fourteen which seemed to recede as he approached. Like most of the boys in the gang, he had been in business since he was six; but it was business that changed its nature frequently and had to be transacted under great difficulty. He had acquired proficiency as a crap-shooter only to find that the profession was not regarded as an honorable one; he had invested heavily in pins and pencils and tried to peddle them out on the avenue, only to find himself sternly taken in hand by a determined lady who talked to him about minors and street trades. Shoe-shining had been tried; so had selling papers, but each of these required capital, and Dan's appetite was of such a demanding character that the acquisition of capital was well nigh impossible.
From that first day when the truant officer had driven him into the educational fold, his problems had increased. It was not that he disliked school. On the contrary he was ambitious and made heroic efforts to keep up with the class; but it was up-hill work getting an education without text-books. The city, to be sure, furnished these to boys whose mothers applied for them in person, but Dan's mother never had time to come. The cause of most of his trouble, however, was clothes; seatless trousers, elbowless coats, brimless hats, constituted a series of daily mortifications which were little short of torture.
Twice, through no fault of his own, he had stood alone before the bar of justice, with no voice lifted in his behalf save the shrill, small voice of Nance Molloy. Twice he had been acquitted and sent back to the old hopeless environment, and admonished to try again. How hard he had tried and against what odds, surely only the angel detailed to patrol Calvary Alley has kept any record.
If any doubts assailed him concerning the mother who took little heed of his existence, he never expressed them. Her name rarely passed his lips, but he watched for her coming as a shipwrecked mariner watches for a sail. When a boy ponders and worries over something for which he dares not ask an explanation, he is apt to become sullen and preoccupied. On the day that the long-suffering landlord served notice, Dan told no one of his mother's absence. Behind closed doors he packed what things he could, clumsily tying the rest of the household goods in the bedclothes. At noon the new tenant arrived and, in order to get his own things in, obligingly assisted in moving Dan's out. It was then and then only that the news had gone abroad.
For three hours now the worldly possessions of the dubious Mrs. Lewis had lain exposed on the pavement, and for three hours Dan had sat beside them keeping guard. From every tenement window inquisitive eyes watched each stage of the proceeding, and voluble tongues discussed every phase of the situation. Every one who passed, from Mr. Lavinski, with a pile of pants on his head, to little Rosy Snawdor, stopped to take a look at him and to ask questions.
Dan had reached a point of sullen silence. Sitting on a pile of bedclothes, with a gilt-framed mirror under one arm and a flowered water pitcher under the other, he scowled defiance at each newcomer. Against the jeers of the boys he could register vows of future vengeance and console himself with the promise of bloody retribution; but against the endless queries and insinuations of his adult neighbors, he was utterly defenseless.
"Looks like she had ever'thing fer the parlor, an' nothin' fer the kitchen," observed Mrs. Snawdor from her third-story window to Mrs. Smelts at her window two floors below.
"I counted five pairs of curlin' irons with my own eyes," said Mrs. Smelts, "an' as fer bottles! If they took out one, they took out a hunderd."
"You don't reckon that there little alcohol stove was all she had to cook on, do you?" called up Mrs. Gorman from the pavement below.
"Maybe that's what she het her curlin' irons on!" was Mrs. Snawdor's suggestion, a remark which provoked more mirth than it deserved.
Dan gazed straight ahead with no sign that he heard. However strong the temptation was to dart away into some friendly hiding place, he was evidently not going to yield to it. The family possessions were in jeopardy, and he was not one to shirk responsibilities.
Advice was as current as criticism. Mrs. Gorman, being a chronic recipient of civic favors, advocated an appeal to the charity organization; Mrs. Snawdor, ever at war with foreign interference, strongly opposed the suggestion, while Mrs. Smelts with a covetous eye on the gilt mirror under Dan's arm, urged a sidewalk sale. As for the boy himself, not a woman in the alley but was ready to take him in and share whatever the family larder provided.
But to all suggestions Dan doggedly shook his head. He was "thinkin' it out," he said, and all he wanted was to be let alone.
"Well, you can't set there all night," said Mrs. Snawdor, "if yer maw don't turn up by five o'clock, us neighbors is goin' to take a hand."
All afternoon Dan sat watching the corner round which his mother might still appear. Not a figure had turned into the alley, that he had not seen it, not a clanging car had stopped in the street beyond, that his quick ear had not noted.
About the time the small hand of the cathedral clock got around to four, Nance Molloy came skipping home from school. She had been kept in for a too spirited resentment of an older girl's casual observation that both of her shoes were for the same foot. To her, as to Dan, these trying conventions in the matter of foot-gear were intolerable. No combination seemed to meet the fastidious demands of that exacting sixth grade.
"Hello, Dan!" she said, coming to a halt at sight of the obstructed pavement. "What's all this for?"
"Put out," said Dan laconically.
"Didn't yer maw never come back?"
Nance climbed up beside him on the bedclothes and took her seat.
"What you goin' to do?" she asked in a business-like tone.
"Dunno." Dan did not turn his head to look at her, but he felt a dumb comfort in her presence. It was as if her position there beside him on the pillory made his humiliation less acute. He shifted the water pitcher, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder:
"They all want to divide the things an' take keer of 'em 'til she comes," he said, "but I ain't goin' to let 'em."
"I wouldn't neither," agreed Nance. "Old man Smelts an' Mr. Gorman'd have what they took in hock before mornin'. There's a coal shed over to Slap Jack's ain't full. Why can't you put yer things in there for to-night?"
"He wouldn't let me. He's a mean old Dutchman."
"He ain't, neither! He's the nicest man in the alley, next to Uncle Jed an' that there old man with the fiddle. Mr. Jack an' me's friends. He gives me pretzels all the time. I'll go ast him."
A faint hope stirred in Dan as she slid down from her perch and darted into the saloon next door. She had wasted no time in conjecture or sympathy; she had plunged at once into action. When she returned, the fat saloonkeeper lumbered in her wake:
"Dose tings is too many, already," he protested. "I got no place to put my coal once de cold vedder comes."
"It ain't come yet," said Nance. "Besides his mother'll be here to-morrow, I 'spect."
"Mebbe she vill, und mebbe she von't," said the saloonkeeper astutely. "I don't want dat I should mess up myself mid dis here piziness."
"The things ain't goin' to hurt your old coal shed none!" began Nance, firing up; then with a sudden change of tactics, she slipped her hand into Mr. Jack's fat, red one, and lifted a pair of coaxing blue eyes. "Say, go on an' let him, Mr. Jack! I told him you would. I said you was one of the nicest men in the alley. You ain't goin' to make me out a liar, are you?"
"Vell, I leave him put 'em in for to-night," said the saloonkeeper grudgingly, his Teuton caution overcome by Celtic wile.
The conclave of women assembled in the hall of Number One, to carry out Mrs. Snawdor's threat of "taking a hand," were surprised a few minutes later, to see the objects under discussion being passed over the fence by Mr. Jack and Dan under the able generalship of the one feminine member of the alley whose counsel had been heeded.
When the last article had been transferred to the shed, and a veteran padlock had been induced to return to active service, the windows of the tenement were beginning to glow dully, and the smell of cabbage and onions spoke loudly of supper.
Nance, notwithstanding the fourth peremptory summons from aloft, to walk herself straight home that very minute, still lingered with Dan.
"Come on home with me," she said. "You can sleep in Uncle Jed's bed 'til five o'clock."
"I kin take keer of myself all right," he said. "It was the things that pestered me."
"But where you goin' to git yer supper?"
"I got money," he answered, making sure that his nickel was still in his pocket. "Besides, my mother might come while I was there."
"Well, don't you fergit that to-morrow we go to Mis' Purdy's."
Dan looked at her with heavy eyes.
"Oh! I ain't got time to fool around with that business. I don't know where I'll be at by to-morrow."
"You'll be right here," said Nance firmly, "and I ain't goin' to budge a step without you if I have to wait all afternoon."
"Well, I ain't comin'," said Dan.
"I'm goin' to wait," said Nance, "an' if I git took up fer not reportin', it'll be your fault."
Dan slouched up to the corner and sat on the curbstone where he could watch the street cars. As they stopped at the crossing, he leaned forward eagerly and scanned the passengers who descended. In and out of the swinging door of the saloon behind him passed men, singly and in groups. There were children, too, with buckets, but they had to go around to the side. He wanted to go in himself and buy a sandwich, but he didn't dare. The very car he was waiting for might come in his absence.
At nine o'clock he was still waiting when two men came out and paused near him to light their cigars. They were talking about Skeeter Newson, the notorious pickpocket, who two days before had broken jail and had not yet been found. Skeeter's exploits were a favorite topic of the Calvary Micks, and Dan, despite the low state of his mind, pricked his ears to listen.
"They traced him as far as Chicago," said one of the men, "but there he give 'em the slip."
"Think of the nerve of him taking that Lewis woman with him," said the other voice. "By the way, I hear she lives around here somewhere."
"A bad lot," said the first voice as they moved away.
Dan sat rigid with his back to the telegraph pole, his feet in the gutter, his mouth fallen open, staring dully ahead of him. Then suddenly he reached blindly for a rock, and staggered to his feet, but the figures had disappeared in the darkness. He sat down again, while his breath came in short, hard gasps. It was a lie! His mother was not bad! He knew she was good. He wanted to shriek it to the world. But even as he passionately defended her to himself, fears assailed him.
Why had they always lived so differently from other people? Why was he never allowed to ask questions or to answer them or to know where his mother went or how they got their living? What were the parcels she always kept locked up in the trunk in the closet? Events, little heeded at the time of occurrence, began to fall into place, making a hideous and convincing pattern. Dim memories of men stole out of the past and threw distorted shadows on his troubled brain. There was Bob who had once given him a quarter, and Uncle Dick who always came after he was in bed, and Newt—his neck stiffened suddenly. Newt, whom his mother used always to be talking about, and whose name he had not heard now for so long that he had almost forgotten it. Skeeter Newson—Newt—"The Lewis Woman." He saw it all in a blinding flash, and in that awful moment of realization he passed out of his childhood and entered man's estate.
Choking back his sobs, he fled from the scene of his disgrace. In one alley and out another he stumbled, looking for a hole in which he could crawl and pour out his pent-up grief. But privacy is a luxury reserved for the rich, and Dan and his kind cannot even claim a place in which to break their hearts.
It was not until he reached the river bank and discovered an overturned hogshead that he found a refuge. Crawling in, he buried his face in his arms and wept, not with the tempestuous abandonment of a lonely child, but with the dry, soul-racking sobs of a disillusioned man. His mother had been the one beautiful thing in his life, and he had worshiped her as some being from another world. Other boys' mothers had coarse, red hands and loud voices; his had soft, white hands and a sweet, gentle voice that never scolded.
Sometimes when she stayed at home, they had no money, and then she would lie on the bed and cry, and he would try to comfort her. Those were the times when he would stay away from school and go forth to sell things at the pawn shop. The happiest nights he could remember were the ones when he had come home with money in his pocket, to a lighted lamp in the window, and a fire on the hearth and his mother's smile of welcome. But those times were few and far between; he was much more used to darkened windows, a cold hearth, and an almost empty larder. In explanation of these things he had accepted unconditionally his mother's statement that she was a lady.
As he fought his battle alone there in the dark, all sorts of wild plans came to him. Across the dark river the shore lights gleamed, and down below at the wharf, a steamboat was making ready to depart. He had heard of boys who slipped aboard ships and beat their way to distant cities. A fierce desire seized him to get away, anywhere, just so he would not have to face the shame and disgrace that had come upon him. There was no one to care now where he went or what became of him. He would run away and be a tramp where nobody could ask questions.
With quick decision he started up to put his plan into action when a disturbing thought crossed his mind. Had Nance Molloy meant it when she said she wouldn't report to the probation officer if he didn't go with her? Would she stand there in the alley and wait for him all afternoon, just as he had waited so often for some one who did not come? His reflections were disturbed by a hooting noise up the bank, followed by a shower of rocks. The next instant a mongrel pup scurried down the levee and dropped shivering at his feet.
The yells of the pursuers died away as Dan gathered the whimpering beast into his arms and examined its injuries.
"Hold still, old fellow. I ain't goin' to hurt you," he whispered, tenderly wiping the blood from one dripping paw. "I won't let 'em git you. I'll take care of you."
The dog lifted a pair of agonized eyes to Dan's face and licked his hands.
"You lemme tie it up with a piece of my sleeve, an' I'll give you somethin' to eat," went on Dan. "Me an' you'll buy a sandich an' I'll eat the bread an' you can have the meat. Me an you'll be partners."
Misery had found company, and already life seemed a little less desolate. But the new-comer continued to yelp with pain, and Dan examined the limp leg dubiously.
"I b'lieve it's broke," he thought. Then he had an inspiration.
"I know what I'll do," he said aloud, "I'll carry you out to the animal man when me an' Nance go to report to-morrow."
After Nance Molloy's first visit to Butternut Lane, life became a series of thrilling discoveries. Hitherto she had been treated collectively. At home she was "one of the Snawdor kids"; to the juvenile world beyond the corner she was "a Calvary Alley mick"; at school she was "a pupil of the sixth grade." It remained for little Mrs. Purdy to reveal the fact to her that she was an individual person.
Mrs. Purdy had the most beautiful illusions about everything. She seemed to see her fellow-men not as they were, but as God intended them to be. She discovered so many latent virtues and attractions in her new probationers that they scarcely knew themselves.
When, for instance, she made the startling observation that Nance had wonderful hair, and that, if she washed it with an egg and brushed it every day, it would shine like gold, Nance was interested, but incredulous. Until now hair had meant a useless mass of tangles that at long intervals was subjected to an agonizing process of rebraiding. The main thing about hair was that it must never on any account be left hanging down one's back. Feuds had been started and battles lost by swinging braids. The idea of washing it was an entirely new one to her; but the vision of golden locks spurred her on to try the experiment. She carefully followed directions, but the egg had been borrowed from Mrs. Smelts who had borrowed it some days before from Mrs. Lavinski, and the result was not what Mrs. Purdy predicted.
"If ever I ketch you up to sech fool tricks again," scolded Mrs. Snawdor, who had been called to the rescue, "I'll skin yer hide off! You've no need to take yer hair down except when I tell you. You kin smooth it up jus' like you always done."
Having thus failed in her efforts at personal adornment, Nance turned her attention to beautifying her surroundings. The many new features observed in the homely, commonplace house in Butternut Lane stirred her ambition. Her own room, to be sure, possessed architectural defects that would have discouraged most interior decorators. It was small and dark, with only one narrow opening into an air-shaft. Where the plaster had fallen off, bare laths were exposed, and in rainy weather a tin tub occupied the center of the floor to catch the drippings from a hole in the roof. For the rest, a slat bed, an iron wash-stand, and a three-legged chair comprised the furniture.
But Nance was not in the least daunted by the prospect. With considerable ingenuity she evolved a dresser from a soap box and the colored supplements of the Sunday papers, which she gathered into a valance, in imitation of Mrs. Purdy's bright chintz. In the air-shaft window she started three potato vines in bottles, but not satisfied with the feeble results, she pinned red paper roses to the sickly white stems. The nearest substitutes she could find for pictures were labels off tomato cans, and these she tacked up with satisfaction, remembering Mrs. Purdy's admired fruit pictures.
"'Tain't half so dark in here as 'tis down in Smeltses," she bragged to Fidy, who viewed her efforts with pessimism. "Once last summer the sun come in here fer purty near a week. It shined down the shaft. You ast Lobelia if it didn't."
Nance was nailing a pin into the wall with the heel of her slipper, and the loose plaster was dropping behind the bed.
"Mis' Purdy says if I don't say no cuss words, an' wash meself all over on Wednesdays and Sat'days, she's goin' to help me make myself a new dress!"
"Why don't she give you one done made?" asked Fidy.
"She ain't no charity lady!" said Nance indignantly. "Me an' her's friends. She said we was."
"What's she goin' to give Dan?" asked Fidy, to whom personages from the upper world were interesting only when they bore gifts in their hands.
"She ain't givin' him nothin', Silly! She's lettin' him help her. He gits a quarter a hour, an' his dinner fer wheelin' Mr. Walter in the park."
"They say Mr. Jack's give him a room over the saloon 'til his maw comes back."
"I reckon I know it. I made him! You jus' wait 'til December when Dan'll be fourteen. Once he gits to work he won't have to take nothin' offen nobody!"
School as well as home took on a new interest under Mrs. Purdy's influence. Shoes and textbooks appeared almost miraculously, and reports assumed a new and exciting significance. Under this new arrangement Dan blossomed into a model of righteousness, but Nance's lapses from grace were still frequent. The occasional glimpses she was getting of a code of manners and morals so different from those employed by her stepmother, were not of themselves sufficient to reclaim her. On the whole she found being good rather stupid and only consented to conform to rules when she saw for herself the benefit to be gained.
For instance, when she achieved a burning desire to be on the honor roll and failed on account of being kept at home, she took the matter into her own small hands and reported herself to the once despised truant officer. The result was a stormy interview between him and her stepmother which removed all further cause of jealousy on the part of Mr. Snawdor, and gave Nance a record for perfect attendance.
Having attained this distinction, she was fired to further effort. She could soon glibly say the multiplication tables backward, repeat all the verses in her school reader, and give the names and length of the most important rivers in the world. On two occasions she even stepped into prominence. The first was when she electrified a visiting trustee by her intimate knowledge of the archipelagos of the eastern hemisphere. The fact that she had not the remotest idea of the nature of an archipelago was mercifully not divulged. The second had been less successful. It was during a visit of Bishop Bland's to the school. He was making a personal investigation concerning a report, then current, that public school children were underfed. Bishop Bland was not fond of children, but he was sensitive to any slight put upon the stomach, and he wished very much to be able to refute the disturbing rumor.
"Now I cannot believe," he said to the sixth grade, clasping his plump hands over the visible result of many good dinners, "that any one of you nice boys and girls came here this morning hungry. I want any boy in the room who is not properly nourished at home to stand up."
Nobody rose, and the bishop cast an affirmative smile on the principal.
"As I thought," he continued complacently. "Now I'm going to ask any little girl in this room to stand up and tell us just exactly what she had for breakfast. I shall not be in the least surprised if it was just about what I had myself."
There was a silence, and it began to look as if nobody was going to call the bishop's bluff, when Nance jumped up from a rear seat and said at the top of her voice:
"A pretzel and a dill pickle!"
The new-found enthusiasm for school might have been of longer duration had it not been for a counter-attraction at home. From that first night when old "Mr. Demry," as he had come to be called, had played for her to dance, Nance had camped on his door-step. Whenever the scrape of his fiddle was heard from below, she dropped whatever she held, whether it was a hot iron or the baby, and never stopped until she reached the ground floor. And by and by other children found their way to him, not only the children of the tenement, but of the whole neighborhood as well. It was soon noised abroad that he knew how to coax the fairies out of the woods and actually into the shadows of Calvary Alley where they had never been heard of before. With one or two children on his knees and a circle on the floor around him, he would weave a world of dream and rainbows, and people it with all the dear invisible deities of childhood. And while he talked, his thin cheeks would flush, and his dim eyes shine with the same round wonder as his listeners.
But some nights when the children came, they found him too sleepy to tell stories or play on the fiddle. At such times he always emptied his pockets of small coins and sent the youngsters scampering away to find the pop-corn man. Then he would stand unsteadily at the door and watch them go, with a wistful, disappointed look on his tired old face.
Nance overheard her elders whispering that "he took something," and she greatly feared that he would meet a fate similar to that of Joe Smelts. In Joe's case it was an overcoat, and he had been forced to accept the hospitality of the State for thirty days. Nance's mind was greatly relieved to find that it was only powders that Mr. Demry took—powders that made him walk queer and talk queer and forget sometimes where he lived. Then it was that the children accepted him as their special charge. They would go to his rescue wherever they found him and guide his wandering footsteps into the haven of Calvary Alley.
"He's a has-benn," Mrs. Snawdor declared to Uncle Jed. "You an' me are never-wases, but that old gent has seen better days. They tell me that settin' down in the orchestry, he looks fine. That's the reason his coat's always so much better'n his shoes an' pants; he dresses up the part of him that shows. You can tell by the way he acts an' talks that he's different from us."
Perhaps that was the reason, that while Nance loved Uncle Jed quite as much, she found Mr. Demry far more interesting. Everything about him was different, from his ideas concerning the proper behavior of boys and girls, to his few neatly distributed belongings. His two possessions that most excited her curiosity and admiration, were the violin and its handsome old rosewood case, which you were not allowed to touch, and a miniature in a frame of gold, of a beautiful pink and white girl in a pink and white dress, with a fair curl falling over her bare shoulder. Nance would stand before the latter in adoring silence; then she would invariably say:
"Go on an' tell me about her, Mr. Demry!"
And standing behind her, with his fine sensitive hands on her shoulders, Mr. Demry would tell wonderful stories of the little girl who had once been his. And as he talked, the delicate profile in the picture became an enchanting reality to Nance, stirring her imagination and furnishing an object for her secret dreams.
Hitherto Birdie Smelts had been her chief admiration. Birdie was fourteen and wore French heels and a pompadour and had beaux. She had worked in the ten-cent store until her misplaced generosity with the glass beads on her counter resulted in her being sent to a reformatory. But Birdie's bold attractions suffered in comparison with the elusive charm of the pink and white goddess with the golden curl.
This change marked the dawn of romance in Nance's soul. Up to this time she had demanded of Mr. Demry the most "scareful" stories he knew, but from now on Blue Beard and Jack, the Giant-Killer had to make way for Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty. She went about with her head full of dreams, and eyes that looked into an invisible world. It was not that the juvenile politics of the alley were less interesting, or the street fights or adventures of the gang less thrilling. It was simply that life had become absorbingly full of other things.
As the months passed Mrs. Snawdor spent less and less time at home. She seemed to think that when she gave her nights on her knees for her family, she was entitled to use the remaining waking hours for recreation. This took the form of untiring attention to other people's business. She canvassed the alley for delinquent husbands to admonish, for weddings to arrange, for funerals to supervise—the last being a specialty, owing to experience under the late Mr. Yager.
Upon one of the occasions when she was superintending the entrance of a neighboring baby into the world, her own made a hurried exit. A banana and a stick of licorice proved too stimulating a diet for him, and he closed his eyes permanently on a world that had offered few attractions.
It was Nance who, having mothered him from his birth, worked with him through the long night of agony; and who, when the end came, cut the faded cotton flowers from her hat to put in the tiny claw-like hand that had never touched a real blossom; and it was Nance's heart that broke when they took him away.
It is doubtful whether any abstract moral appeal could have awakened her as did the going out of that little futile life. It stirred her deepest sympathies and affections, and connected her for the first time with the forces that make for moral and social progress.
"He wouldn't a-went if we'd treated him right!" she complained bitterly to Mr. Snawdor a week later. "He never had no sunshine, nor fresh air, nor nothin'. You can't expect a baby to live where a sweet-potato vine can't!"
"He's better off than me," said Mr. Snawdor, "what with the funeral, an' the coal out, an' the rent due, I'm at the end of my rope. I told her it was comin'. But she would have a white coffin an' six hacks. They'll have to set us out in the street fer all I can see!"
Nance looked at him apprehensively.
"Well, we better be doin' something'," she said. "Can't Uncle Jed help us?"
"I ain't goin' to let him. He's paid my rent fer the last time."
This unexpected flare of independence in Mr. Snawdor was disturbing. The Snawdor family without Uncle Jed was like a row of stitches from which the knitting needle has been withdrawn.
"If I was two years older, I could go to work," said Nance, thinking of Dan, who was now on the pay-roll of Clarke's Bottle Factory.
"It ain't right to make you stop school," said Mr. Snawdor. "It ain't bein' fair to you."
"I'd do it all right," said Nance, fired by his magnanimity, "only they're on to me now I've reported myself. Ain't you makin' any money at the shop?"
Mr. Snawdor shook his head.
"I might if I was willin' to buy junk. But you know where them boys gets their stuff."
Nance nodded wisely.
"The gang bust into a empty house last night an' cut out all the lead pipes. I seen 'em comin' home with it."
Mr. Snawdor rose and went to the window.
"There ain't no chance fer a honest man," he said miserably. "I'm sick o' livin', that's whut I am. I am ready to quit."
When Mrs. Snawdor arrived, she swept all domestic problems impatiently aside.
"Fer goodness' sake don't come tellin' me no more hard-luck tales. Ain't I got troubles enough of my own? Nance, soon 's you git through, go git me a bucket of beer, an' if you see any of the Gormans, say I'll stop in this evenin' on my way to work."
"I ain't goin' fer the beer no more," announced Nance.
"An' will ye tell me why?" asked Mrs. Snawdor.
"'Cause I ain't," said Nance, knowing the futility of argument.
Mrs. Snawdor lifted her hand to strike, but changed her mind. She was beginning to have a certain puzzled respect for her stepdaughter's decision of character.
After the children had been put to bed and Nance had cried over the smallest nightgown, no longer needed, she slipped down to the second floor and, pausing before the door behind which the sewing-machines were always whirring, gave a peculiar whistle. It was a whistle possible only to a person who boasted the absence of a front tooth, and it brought Ike Lavinski promptly to the door.
Ikey was a friend whom she regarded with mingled contempt and admiration—contempt because he was weak and undersized, admiration because he was the only person of her acquaintance who had ever had his name in the newspaper. On two occasions he had been among the honor students at the high school, and his family and neighbors regarded him as an intellectual prodigy.
"Say, Ikey," said Nance, "if you was me, an' had to make some money, an' didn't want to chuck school, what would you do?"
Ikey considered the matter. Money and education were the most important things in the world to him, and were not to be discussed lightly.
"If you were bigger," he said, sweeping her with a critical eye, "you might try sewing pants."
"Could I do it at night? How much would it pay me? Would yer pa take me on?" Nance demanded all in a breath.
"He would if he thought they wouldn't get on to it."
"I'd keep it dark," Nance urged. "I could slip down every night after I git done my work, an' put in a couple of hours, easy. I'm a awful big child fer my age—feel my muscle! Go on an' make him take me on, Ikey, will you?"
And Ikey condescendingly agreed to use his influence.
The Lavinskis' flat on the second floor had always possessed a mysterious fascination for Nance. In and out of the other flats she passed at will, but she had never seen beyond the half-open door of the Lavinskis'. All day and far into the night, the sewing-machines ran at high pressure, and Mr. Lavinski shuffled in and out carrying huge piles of pants on his head. The other tenants stopped on the stairs to exchange civilities or incivilities with equal warmth; they hung out of windows or dawdled sociably in doorways. But summer and winter alike the Lavinskis herded behind closed doors and ran their everlasting sewing-machines.
Mrs. Snawdor gave her ready consent to Nance trying her hand as a "home finisher."
"We got to git money from somewheres," she said, "an' I always did want to know how them Polocks live. But don't you let on to your Uncle Jed what you're doing."
"I ain't goin' to let on to nobody," said Nance, thrilled with the secrecy of the affair.
The stifling room into which Ikey introduced her that night was supposed to be the Lavinskis' kitchen, but it was evident that the poor room had long ago abandoned all notions of domesticity. The tea-kettle had been crowded off the stove by the pressing irons; a wash-tub full of neglected clothes, squeezed itself into a distant corner, and the cooking utensils had had to go climbing up the walls on hooks and nails to make way on the shelves for sewing materials.
On one corner of the table, between two towering piles of pants, were the remains of the last meal, black bread, potatoes, and pickled herring. Under two swinging kerosene lamps, six women with sleeves rolled up and necks bared, bent over whirring machines, while Mr. Lavinski knelt on the floor tying the finished garments into huge bundles.
"Here's Nance Molloy, Pa" said Ikey, raising his voice above the noise of the machines and tugging at his father's sleeve.
Mr. Lavinski pushed his derby hat further back on his perspiring brow, and looked up. He had a dark, sharp face, and alert black eyes, exactly like Ikey's, and a black beard with two locks of black hair trained down in front of his ears to meet it. Without pausing in his work he sized Nance up.
"I von't take childern anny more. I tried it many times already. De inspector git me into troubles. It don't pay."
"But I'll dodge the inspectors," urged Nance.
"You know how to sew, eh?"
"No; but you kin learn me. Please, Mr. Lavinski, Ikey said you would."
Mr. Lavinski bestowed a doting glance on his son.
"My Ikey said so, did he? He thinks he own me, that boy. I send him to high school. I send him to Hebrew class at the synagogue at night. He vill be big rich some day, that boy; he's got a brain on him."
"Cut it out, Pa," said Ikey, "Nance is a smart kid; you won't lose anything on her."
The result was that Nance was accorded the privilege of occupying a stool in the corner behind the hot stove and sewing buttons on knee pantaloons, from eight until ten P.M. At first the novelty of working against time, with a room full of grown people, and of seeing the great stacks of unfinished garments change into great stacks of finished ones, was stimulation in itself. She was proud of her cushion full of strong needles and her spool of coarse thread. She was pleased with the nods of approval gentle Mrs. Lavinski gave her work in passing, and of the slight interest with which she was regarded by the other workers.
But as the hours wore on, and the air became hotter and closer, and no enlivening conversation came to relieve the strain, her interest began to wane. By nine o'clock her hands were sore and stained, and her back ached. By a quarter past, the buttons were slipping through her fingers, and she could not see to thread her needle.
"You vill do better to-morrow night," said Mrs. Lavinski kindly, in her wheezing voice. "I tell Ikey you do verra good."
Mrs. Lavinski looked shriveled and old. She wore a glossy black wig and long ear-rings, and when she was not coughing, she smiled pleasantly over her work. Once Mr. Lavinski stopped pressing long enough to put a cushion at her back.
"My Leah is a saint," he said. "If effra'boddy was so good as her, the Messiah would come."
Nance dreamed of buttons that night, and by the next evening her ambition to become a wage-earner had died completely.
But a family conclave at the supper table revealed such a crisis in the family finances that she decided to keep on at the Lavinskis' for another week. Uncle Jed was laid up with the rheumatism, and Mr. Snawdor's entire stock in trade had been put in a wheelbarrow and dumped into the street, and a strange sign already replaced his old one of "Bungs and Fawcetts."
Things seemed in such a bad way that Nance had about decided to lay the matter before Mrs. Purdy, when Dan brought the disconcerting news that Mrs. Purdy had taken her brother south for the rest of the winter, and that there would be no more visits to the little house in Butternut Lane.
So Nance, not knowing anything better to do, continued to sit night after night on her stool behind the hot stove, sewing on buttons. Thirty-six buttons meant four cents, four cents meant a loaf of bread—a stale loaf, that is.
"Your little fingers vill git ofer bein' sore," Mrs. Lavinski assured her. "I gif you alum water to put on 'em. Dat makes 'em hard."
They not only became hard; they became quick and accurate, and Nance got used to the heat and the smell, and she almost got used to the backache. It was sitting still and being silent that hurt her more than anything else. Mr. Lavinski did not encourage conversation,—it distracted the workers,—and Nance's exuberance, which at first found vent in all sorts of jokes and capers, soon died for lack of encouragement. She learned, instead, to use all her energy on buttons and, being denied verbal expression, she revolved many things in her small mind. The result of her thinking was summed up in her speech to her stepmother at the end of the first week.
"Gee! I'm sick of doin' the same thing! I ain't learnin' nothin'. If anybody was smart, they could make a machine to put on two times as many buttons as me in half the time. I want to begin something at the beginning and make it clean through. I'm sick an' tired of buttons. I'm goin' to quit!"
But Mrs. Snawdor had come to a belated realization of the depleted state of the family treasury and she urged Nance to keep on for the present.
"We better cut all the corners we kin," she said, "till Snawdor gits over this fit of the dumps. Ain't a reason in the world he don't go into the junk business. I ain't astin' him to drive aroun' an' yell 'Old iron!' I know that's tryin' on a bashful man. All I ast him is to set still an' let it come to him. Thank the Lord, I have known husbands that wasn't chicken-hearted!"
So Nance kept on reluctantly, even after Mr. Snawdor got a small job collecting. Sometimes she went to sleep over her task and had to be shaken awake, but that was before she began to drink black coffee with the other workers at nine o'clock.
One thing puzzled her. When Ikey came from night school, he was never asked to help in the work, no matter how much his help was needed. He was always given the seat by the table nearest the lamp, and his father himself cleared a place for his books.
"Ikey gits the education," Mr. Lavinski would say, with a proud smile. "The Rabbi says he is the smartest boy in the class. He takes prizes over big boys. Ve vork fer him now, an' some day he make big money an' take care of us!"
Education as seen through Mr. Lavinski's eyes took on a new aspect for Nance. It seemed that you did not get rich by going to work at fourteen, but by staying at school and in some miraculous way skipping the factory altogether. "I vork with my hands," said Mr. Lavinski; "my Ikey, he vorks with his head."
Nance fell into the way of bringing her school books downstairs at night and getting Ike to help her with her lessons. She would prop the book in front of her and, without lessening the speed of her flying fingers, ply him with the questions that had puzzled her during the day.
"I wisht I was smart as you!" she said one night.
"I reckon you do!" said Ike. "I work for it."
"You couldn't work no more 'n whut I do!" Nance said indignantly.
"There's a difference between working and being worked," said Ike, wisely. "If I were you, I'd look out for number one."
"But who would do the cookin' an' lookin' after the kids, an' all?"
"They are nothing to you," said Ike; "none of the bunch is kin to you. Catch me workin' for them like you do!"
Nance was puzzled, but not convinced. Wiser heads than hers have struggled with a similar problem in vain. She kept steadily on, and it was only when the squeak of Mr. Demry's fiddle came up from below that her fingers fumbled and the buttons went rolling on the floor. Six nights in the week, when Mr. Demry was in condition, he played at the theater, and on Sunday nights he stayed at home and received his young friends. On these occasions Nance became so restless that she could scarcely keep her prancing feet on the floor. She would hook them resolutely around the legs of the stool and even sit on them one at a time, but despite all her efforts, they would respond to the rhythmic notes below.
"Them tunes just make me dance settin' down," she declared, trying to suit the action to the words.
Sometimes on a rainy afternoon when nobody was being born, or getting married, or dying, Mrs. Snawdor stayed at home. At such times Nance seized the opportunity to shift her domestic burden.
There was a cheap theater, called "The Star," around the corner, where a noisy crowd of boys and girls could always be found in the gallery. It was a place where you ate peanuts and dropped the shells on the heads of people below, where you scrapped for your seat and joined in the chorus and shrieked over the antics of an Irishman, a darkey, or a Jew. But it was a luxury seldom indulged in, for it cost the frightful sum of ten cents, not including the peanuts.
For the most part Nance's leisure half-hours were spent with Mr. Demry, discussing a most exciting project. He was contemplating the unheard-of festivity of a Christmas party, and the whole alley was buzzing with it. Even the big boys in Dan's gang were going to take part. There were to be pirates and fairies and ogres, and Nance was to be the princess and do a fancy dance in a petticoat trimmed with silver paper, and wear a tinsel crown.
Scrubbing the floor, figuring on the blackboard, washing dishes, or sewing on buttons, she was aware of that tinsel crown. For one magic night it was going to transform her into a veritable princess, and who knew but that a prince in doublet and hose and sweeping plume might arrive to claim her? But when Nance's imagination was called upon to visualize the prince, a hateful image came to her of a tall, slender boy, clad in white, with a contemptuous look in his handsome brown eyes.
"I don't know what ails Nance these days," Mrs. Snawdor complained to Uncle Jed. "She sasses back if you look at her, an' fergits everything, an' Snawdor says she mutters an' jabbers something awful in her sleep."
"Seems to me she works too hard," said Uncle Jed, still ignorant of her extra two hours in the sweat-shop. "A growin' girl oughtn't to be doin' heavy washin' an' carryin' water an' coal up two flights."
"Why, Nance is strong as a ox," Mrs. Snawdor insisted, "an' as fer eatin'! Why it looks like she never can git filled up."
"Well, what ails her then?" persisted Uncle Jed.
"I bet I know!" said Mrs. Snawdor darkly. "It's that there vaccination. Las' time I hid the other childern from the inspector she had to come out an' argue with him fer herself. She got paid up proper fer givin' in to him. Her arm was a plumb sight."
"Do you suppose it's the poison still workin' on her?" Uncle Jed asked, watching Nance in the next room as she lifted a boiler filled with the washing water from the stove.
"Why, of course, it is! Talk to me about yer State rules an' regerlations! It does look like us poor people has got troubles enough already, without rich folks layin' awake nights studyin' up what they can do to us next."
THE PRINCESS COMES TO GRIEF
And bring her rose-winged fancies, From shadowy shoals of dream To clothe her in the wistful hour When girlhood steals from bud to flower; Bring her the tunes of elfin dances, Bring her the faery Gleam.—BURKE.
Christmas fell on a Saturday and a payday, and this, together with Mr. Demry's party, accounts for the fact that the holiday spirit, which sometimes limps a trifle languidly past tenement doors, swaggered with unusual gaiety this year in Calvary Alley. You could hear it in the cathedral chimes which began at dawn, in the explosion of fire-crackers, in the bursts of noisy laughter from behind swinging doors. You could smell it in the whiffs of things frying, broiling, burning. You could feel it in the crisp air, in the crunch of the snow under your feet, and most of all you could see it in the happy, expectant faces of the children, who rushed in and out in a fever of excitement.
Early in the afternoon Nance Molloy, with a drab-colored shawl over her head and something tightly clasped in one bare, chapped fist, rushed forth on a mysterious mission. When she returned, she carried a pasteboard box hugged to her heart. The thought of tripping her fairy measure in worn-out shoes tied on with strings, had become so intolerable to her that she had bartered her holiday for a pair of white slippers. Mr. Lavinski had advanced the money, and she was to work six hours a day, instead of two, until she paid the money back.
But she was in no mood to reckon the cost, as she prepared for the evening festivities. So great was her energy and enthusiasm, that the contagion spread to the little Snawdors, each of whom submitted with unprecedented meekness to a "wash all over." Nance dressed herself last, wrapping her white feet and legs in paper to keep them clean until the great hour should arrive.
"Why, Nance Molloy! You look downright purty!" Mrs. Snawdor exclaimed, when she came up after assisting Mr. Demry with his refreshments. "I never would 'a' believed it!"
Nance laughed happily. The effect had been achieved by much experimenting before the little mirror over her soap box. The mirror had a wave in it which gave the beholder two noses, but Nance had kept her pink and white ideal steadily in mind, and the result was a golden curl over a bare shoulder. The curl would have been longer had not half of it remained in a burnt wisp around the poker.
But such petty catastrophes have no place in a heart overflowing with joy. Nance did not even try to keep her twinkling feet from dancing; she danced through the table-setting and through the dish-washing, and between times she pressed her face to the dirty pane of the front window to see if the hands on the big cathedral clock were getting any nearer to five.
"They're goin' to have Christmas doin's over to the cathedral, too," she cried excitedly. "The boards is off the new window, an' it's jus' like the old one, an' ever'thing's lit up, an' it's snowin' like ever'thing!"
Mr. Demry's party was to take place between the time he came home from the matinee and the time he returned for the evening performance. Long before the hour appointed, his guests began to arrive, dirty-faced and clean, fat and thin, tidy and ragged, big and little, but all wearing in their eyes that gift of nature to the most sordid youth, the gift of expectancy. There were fairies and ogres and pirates and Indians in costumes that needed only the proper imagination to make them convincing. If by any chance a wistful urchin arrived in his rags alone, Mr. Demry promptly evolved a cocked hat from a newspaper, and a sword from a box top, and transformed him into a prancing knight.
The children had been to Sunday-school entertainments where they had sat in prim rows and watched grown people have all the fun of fixing the tree and distributing the presents, but for most of them this was the first Christmas that they had actually helped to make. Every link in the colored paper garlands was a matter of pride to some one.
What the children had left undone, Mr. Demry had finished. All the movables had been put out of sight as if they were never to be wanted again. From the ceiling swung two glowing paper lanterns that threw soft, mysterious, dancing lights on things. In the big fireplace a huge fire crackled and roared, and on the shelf above it were stacks of golden oranges, and piles of fat, brown doughnuts. Across one corner, on a stout cord, hung some green branches with small candles twinkling above them. It was not exactly a Christmas tree, but it had evidently fooled Santa Claus, for on every branch hung a trinket or a toy for somebody.
And nobody thought, least of all Mr. Demry, of how many squeaks of the old fiddle had gone into the making of this party, of the bread and meat that had gone into the oranges and doughnuts, of the fires that should have warmed Mr. Demry's chilled old bones for weeks to come, that went roaring up the wide chimney in one glorious burst of prodigality.
When the party was in full swing and the excitement was at its highest, the guests were seated on the floor in a double row, and Mr. Demry took his stand by the fireplace, with his fiddle under his chin, and began tuning up.
Out in the dark hall, in quivering expectancy, stood the princess, shivering with impatience as she waited for Dan to fling open the door for her triumphant entrance. Every twang of the violin strings vibrated in her heart, and she could scarcely wait for the signal. It was the magic moment when buttons ceased to exist and tinsel crowns became a reality.
The hall was dark and very cold, and the snow drifting in made a white patch on the threshold. Nance, steadying her crown against the icy draught, lifted her head suddenly and listened. From the room on the opposite side of the hall came a woman's frightened cry, followed by the sound of breaking furniture. The next instant the door was flung open, and Mrs. Smelts, with her baby in her arms, rushed forth. Close behind her rolled Mr. Smelts, his shifted ballast of Christmas cheer threatening each moment to capsize him.
"I'll learn ye to stop puttin' cures in my coffee!" he bellowed. "Spoilin' me taste fer liquor, are ye? I'll learn ye!"
"I never meant no harm, Jim," quailed Mrs. Smelts, cowering in the corner with one arm upraised to shield the baby. "I seen the ad in the paper. It claimed to be a whisky-cure. Don't hit me, Jim—don't—" But before she could finish, Mr. Smelts had struck her full in the face with a brutal fist and had raised his arm to strike again. But the blow never fell.
The quick blood that had made Phil Molloy one of the heroes of Chickasaw Bluffs rose in the veins of his small granddaughter, and she suddenly saw red. Had Jim Smelts been twice the size he was, she would have sprung at him just the same and rained blow after stinging blow upon his befuddled head with her slender fairy wand.
"Git up the steps!" she shrieked to Mrs. Smelts. "Fer God's sake git out of his way! Dan! Dan Lewis! Help! Help!"
Mr. Smelts, infuriated at the interference, had pinioned Nance's arms behind her and was about to beat her crowned head against the wall when Dan rushed into the hall.
"Throw him out the front door!" screamed Nance. "Help me push him down the steps!"
Mr. Smelts' resistance was fierce, but brief. His legs were much drunker than his arms, and when the two determined youngsters flung themselves upon him and shoved him out of the door, he lost his balance and fell headlong to the street below.
By this time the party had swarmed into the hall and out on the steps and Mr. Demry's gentle, frightened face could be seen peering over their decorated heads. The uproar had brought other tenants scurrying from the upper floors, and somebody was dispatched for a police. Dense and denser grew the crowd, and questions, excuses, accusations were heard on every side.
"They've done killed him," wailed a woman's voice above the other noises. It was Mrs. Smelts who, with all the abandonment of a bereft widow, cast herself beside the huddled figure lying motionless in the snow.
"What's all this row about?" demanded Cockeye, forcing his way to the front and assuming an air of stern authority.
"They've killed my Jim!" wailed Mrs. Smelts. "I'm goin' to have the law on 'em!"
The policeman, with an impolite request that she stop that there caterwauling, knelt on the wet pavement and made a hasty diagnosis of the case.
"Leg's broke, and head's caved in a bit. That's all I can see is the matter of him. Who beat him up?"
"Him an' her!" accused Mrs. Smelts hysterically, pointing to Dan and Nance, who stood shivering beside Mr. Demry on the top step.
"Well, I'll be hanged if them ain't the same two that was had up last summer!" said the policeman in profound disgust. "It's good-by fer them all right."
"But we was helpin' Mis' Smelts!" cried Nance in bewilderment. "He was beatin' her. He was goin' to hit the baby—"
"Here comes the Black Maria!" yelled an emissary from the corner, and the crowd parted as the long, narrow, black patrol-wagon clanged noisily into the narrow court.
Mr. Smelts was lifted in, none too gently, and as he showed no signs of returning consciousness, Cock-eye paused irresolute and looked at Dan.
"You best be comin' along, too," he said with sudden decision. "The bloke may be hurt worse 'rn I think. I'll just drop you at the detention home 'til over Sunday."
"You shan't take Dan Lewis!" cried Nance in instant alarm. "He was helpin' me, I tell you! He ain't done nothin' bad—" Then as Dan was hustled down the steps and into the wagon, she lost her head completely. Regardless of consequences, she hurled herself upon the law. She bit it and scratched it and even spat upon it.
Had Mrs. Snawdor or Uncle Jed been there, the catastrophe would never have happened; but Mrs. Snawdor was at the post-office, and Uncle Jed at the signal tower, and the feeble protests of Mr. Demry were as futile as the twittering of a sparrow.
"I'll fix you, you little spitfire!" cried the irate officer, holding her hands and lifting her into the wagon. "Some of you women put a cloak around her, and be quick about it."
Nance, refusing to be wrapped up, continued to fight savagely.
"I ain't goin' in the hurry-up wagon!" she screamed. "I ain't done nothin' bad! Let go my hands!"
But the wagon was already moving out of the alley, and Nance suddenly ceased to struggle. An accidental combination of circumstances, too complicated and overwhelming to be coped with, was hurrying her away to some unknown and horrible fate. She looked at her mud-splashed white slippers that were not yet paid for, and then back at the bright window behind which the party was waiting. In a sudden anguish of disappointment she flung herself face downward on the long seat and sobbed with a passion that was entirely too great for her small body.
Sitting opposite, his stiff, stubby hair sticking out beneath his pirate hat, Dan Lewis, forgetting his own misfortune, watched her with dumb compassion, and between them, on the floor, lay a drunken hulk of a man with blood trickling across his ugly, bloated face, his muddy feet resting on all that remained of a gorgeous, tinsel crown.
It was at this moment that the Christmas spirit fled in despair from Calvary Alley and took refuge in the big cathedral where, behind the magnificent new window, a procession of white-robed choir-boys, led by Mac Clarke, were joyously proclaiming:
"Hark! the herald angels sing Glory to the new-born King;"
THE STATE TAKES A HAND
The two reformatories to which the children, after various examinations, were consigned, represented the worst and the best types of such institutions.
Dan Lewis was put behind barred windows with eight hundred other young "foes of society." He was treated as a criminal, and when he resented it, he was put under a cold shower and beaten with a rattan until he fainted. Outraged, humiliated, bitterly resentful, his one idea was to escape. At the end of a month of cruelty and injustice he was developing a hatred against authority that would ultimately have landed him in the State prison had not a miraculous interference from without set him free and returned him to his work in Clarke's Bottle Factory.
It all came about through a letter received by Mrs. Purdy, who was wintering in Florida—a tear-stained, blotted, misspelled letter that had been achieved with great difficulty. It ran:
Dear Mis Purdy, me and Dan Lewis is pinched again. But I ain't a Dellinkent. The jedge says theres a diffrunce. He says he was not puting me in becose I was bad but becose I was not brot upright. He says for me to be good and stay here and git a education. He says its my chanct. I was mad at first, but now I aint. What Im writing you fer is to git Dan Lewis out. He never done nothink what was wrong and he got sent to the House of Refuse. Please Mis Purdy you git him off. He aint bad. You know he aint. You ast everbody at home, and then go tell the Jedge and git him off. I can't stan fer him to be in that ole hole becose it aint fair. Please don't stop at nothink til you git him out. So good-by, loveingly, NANCE.
This had been written a little at a time during Nance's first week at Forest Home. She had arrived in such a burning state of indignation that it required the combined efforts of the superintendent and the matron to calm her. In fact her spirit did not break until she was subjected to a thorough scrubbing from head to foot, and put to bed on a long porch between cold, clean sheets. She was used to sleeping in her underclothes in the hot close air of Snawdor's flat, with Fidy and Lobelia snuggled up on each side. This icy isolation was intolerable! Her hair, still damp, felt strange and uncomfortable; her eyes smarted from the recent application of soap. She lay with her knees drawn up to her chin and shivered and cried to go home.
Hideous thoughts tormented her. Who'd git up the coal, an' do the washin'? Would Mr. Snawdor fergit an' take off Rosy's aesophedity bag, so she'd git the measles an' die like the baby? What did Mr. Lavinski think of her fer not comin' to work out the slipper money? Would Dan ever git his place back at the factory after he'd been in the House of Refuse? Was Mr. Smelts' leg broke plum off, so's he'd have to hobble on a peg-stick?
She cowered under the covers. "God aint no friend of mine," she sobbed miserably.
When she awoke the next morning, she sat up and looked about her. The porch in which she lay was enclosed from floor to ceiling in glass, and there were rows of small white beds like her own, stretching away on each side of her. The tip of her nose was very cold, but the rest of her was surprisingly warm, and the fresh air tasted good in her mouth. It was appallingly still and strange, and she lay down and listened for the sounds that did not come.
There were no factory whistles, no clanging of car bells, no lumbering of heavy wagons. Instead of the blank wall of a warehouse upon which she was used to opening her eyes, there were miles and miles of dim white fields. Presently a wonderful thing happened. Something was on fire out there at the edge of the world—something big and round and red. Nance held her breath and for the first time in her eleven years saw the sun rise.
When getting-up time came, she went with eighteen other girls into a big, warm dressing-room.
"This is your locker," said the girl in charge.
"My whut?" asked Nance.
"Your locker, where you put your clothes."
Nance had no clothes except the ones she was about to put on, but the prospect of being the sole possessor of one of those little closets brought her the first gleam of consolation.
The next followed swiftly. The owner of the adjoining locker proved to be no other than Birdie Smelts. Whatever fear Nance had of Birdie's resenting the part she had played in landing Mr. Smelts in the city hospital was promptly banished.
"You can't tell me nothing about paw," Birdie said at the end of Nance's recital. "I only wish it was his neck instead of his leg that was broke."
"But we never aimed to hurt him," explained Nance, to whom the accident still loomed as a frightful nightmare. "They didn't have no right to send me out here."
"It ain't so worse," said Birdie indifferently. "You get enough to eat and you keep warm and get away from rough-housin'; that's something."
"But I don't belong here!" protested Nance, hotly.
"Aw, forget it," advised Birdie, with a philosophical shrug of her shapely shoulders. Birdie was not yet fifteen, but she had already learned to take the course of least resistance. She was a pretty, weak-faced girl, with a full, graceful figure and full red lips and heavy-lidded eyes that always looked sleepy.
"I wouldn't keer so much if it wasn't fer Dan Lewis," Nance said miserably. "He was inside Mr. Demry's room, an' never knowed a thing about it 'til I hollered."
"Say, I believe you are gone on Dan!" said Birdie, lifting a teasing finger.
"I ain't either!" said Nance indignantly, "but I ain't goin' to quit tryin' 'til I git him out!"
In the bright airy dining-room where they went for breakfast, Nance sat at a small table with five other girls and scornfully refused the glass of milk they offered her as a substitute for the strong coffee to which she was accustomed. She had about decided to starve herself to death, but changed her mind when the griddle-cakes and syrup appeared.
In fact, she changed her mind about many things during those first days. After a few acute attacks of homesickness, she began despite herself to take a pioneer's delight in blazing a new trail. It was the first time she had ever come into contact for more than a passing moment, with decent surroundings and orderly living, and her surprises were endless.
"Say, do these guys make you put on airs like this all the time?" she asked incredulously of her table-companion.
"Like eatin' with a fork, an' washin' every day, an' doin' yer hair over whether it needs it or not?"
"If I had hair as grand as yours, they wouldn't have to make me fix it," said the close-cropped little girl enviously.
Nance looked at her suspiciously. Once before she had been lured by that bait, and she was wary. But the envy in the eyes of the short-haired girl was genuine.
Nance took the first opportunity that presented itself to look in a mirror. To her amazement, her tight, drab-colored braids had become gleaming bands of gold, and there were fluffy little tendrils across her forehead and at the back of her neck. It was unbelievable, too, how much more becoming one nose was to the human countenance than two.
A few days later when one of the older girls said teasingly, "Nance Molloy is stuck on her hair!" Nance answered proudly, "Well, ain't I got a right to be?"
At the end of the first month word came from Mrs. Purdy that she had succeeded in obtaining Dan's release, and that he was back at work at Clarke's, and on probation again. This news, instead of making Nance restless for her own freedom, had quite the opposite effect. Now that her worry over Dan was at an end, she resigned herself cheerfully to the business of being reformed.
The presiding genius of Forest Home was Miss Stanley, the superintendent. She did not believe in high fences or uniforms or bodily punishment. She was tall, handsome, and serene, and she treated the girls with the same grave courtesy with which she treated the directors.
Nance regarded her with something of the worshipful awe she had once felt before an image of the Virgin Mary.
"She don't make you 'fraid exactly," she confided to Birdie. "She makes you 'shamed."
"You can tell she's a real lady the way she shines her finger-nails," said Birdie, to whom affairs of the toilet were of great importance.
"Another way you can tell," Nance added, trying to think the thing out for herself, "is the way she takes slams. You an' me sass back, but a real lady knows how to hold her jaw an' make you eat dirt just the same."
They were standing side by side at a long table in a big, clean kitchen, cutting out biscuit for supper. Other white-capped, white-aproned girls, all intent upon their own tasks, were flitting about, and a teacher sat at a desk beside the window, directing the work. The two girls had fallen into the habit of doing their chores together and telling each other secrets. Birdie's had mostly to do with boys, and it was not long before Nance felt called upon to make a few tentative observations on the same engrossing subject.
"The prettiest boy I ever seen—" she said, "I mean I have ever saw"—then she laughed helplessly. "Well, anyhow, he was that Clarke feller. You know, the one that got pinched fer smashin' the window the first time we was had up?"
"Mac Clarke? Sure, I know him. He's fresh all right."
Birdie did not go into particulars, but she looked important.
"Say, Birdie," Nance asked admiringly, "when you git out of here, what you goin' to do?"
"I'll tell you what I ain't going to do," said Birdie, impressively, in a low voice, "I ain't going to stand in a store, and I ain't going out to work, and I ain't going to work at Clarke's!"
"But what else is left to do?"
"Swear you won't tell?"
Nance crossed her heart with a floury finger.
"I'm going to be a actress," said Birdie.
It was fortunate for Nance that Birdie's term at the home soon ended. She was at that impressionable age which reflects the nearest object of interest, and shortly after Birdie's departure she abandoned the idea of joining her on the professional boards, and decided instead to become a veterinary surgeon.
This decision was reached through a growing intimacy with the lame old soldier who presided over the Forest Home stables. "Doc" was a familiar character in the county, and his advice about horses was sought far and near. Next to horses he liked children, and after them dogs. Adults came rather far down the line, excepting always Miss Stanley, whom he regarded as infallible.
On the red-letter Sunday when Uncle Jed had tramped the ten miles out from town to assure himself of Nance's well-being, he discovered in Doc an old comrade of the Civil War. They had been in the same company, Uncle Jed as a drummer boy, and Doc in charge of the cavalry horses.
"Why, I expect you recollict this child's grandpaw," Uncle Jed said, with his hand on Nance's head, "Molloy, 'Fightin' Phil,' they called him. Went down with the colors at Chickasaw Bluffs."
Doc did remember. Fighting Phil had been one of the idols of his boyhood.
Miss Stanley found in this friendship a solution of Nance's chief difficulty. When a person of eleven has been doing practical housekeeping for a family of eight, she naturally resents the suggestion that there is anything in domestic science for her to learn. Moreover, when said person is anemic and nervous from overwork, and has a tongue that has never known control, it is perilously easy to get into trouble, despite heroic efforts to be good.
The wise superintendent saw in the girl all sorts of possibilities for both good and evil. For unselfish service and passionate sacrifice, as well as obstinate rebellion and hot-headed folly.
At those unhappy times when Nance threatened to break over the bounds, she was sent out to the stables to spend an afternoon with Doc. No matter how sore her grievance, it vanished in the presence of the genial old veterinarian. She never tired of hearing him tell of her fighting Irish grandfather and the pranks he played on his messmates, of Uncle Jed and the time he lost his drumsticks and marched barefoot in the snow, beating his drum with the heels of his shoes.
Most of all she liked the horses. She learned how to put on bandages and poultices and to make a bran mash. Doc taught her how to give a sick horse a drink out of a bottle without choking him, how to hold his tongue with one hand and put a pill far down his throat with the other. The nursing of sick animals seemed to come to her naturally, and she found it much more interesting than school work and domestic science.
"She's got a way with critters," Doc confided proudly to Miss Stanley. "I've seen a horse eat out of her hand when it wouldn't touch food in the manger."
As the months slipped into years, the memory of Calvary Alley grew dim, and Nance began to look upon herself as an integral part of this orderly life which stretched away in a pleasant perspective of work and play. It was the first time that she had ever been tempted to be good, and she fell. It was not Miss Stanley's way to say "don't." Instead, she said, "do," and the "do's" became so engrossing that the "don'ts" were crowded out.
At regular, intervals Mrs. Snawdor made application for her dismissal, and just as regularly a probation officer visited the Snawdor flat and pronounced it unfit.
"I suppose if I had a phoneygraf an' lace curtains you'd let her come home," Mrs. Snawdor observed caustically during one of these inspections. "You bet I'll fix things up next time if I know you are comin'!"
The State was doing its clumsy best to make up to Nance for what she had missed. It was giving her free board, free tuition, and protection from harmful influences. But that did not begin to square the State's account, nor the account of society. They still owed her something for that early environment of dirt and disease. The landlord in whose vile tenement she had lived, the saloon-keeper who had sold her beer, the manufacturer who had bought the garments she made at starvation wages, were all her debtors. Society exists for the purpose of doing justice to its members, and society had not begun to pay its debt to that youthful member whose lot had been cast in Calvary Alley.
One Saturday afternoon in the early spring of Nance's fourth year at Forest Home, Miss Stanley stood in the school-house door, reading a letter. It was the kind of a day when heaven and earth cannot keep away from each other, but the fleecy clouds must come down to play in the sparkling pools, and white and pink blossoms must go climbing up to the sky to flaunt their sweetness against the blue. Yet Miss Stanley, reading her letter, sighed.
Coming toward her down the hillside, plunged a noisy group of children, and behind them in hot pursuit came Nance Molloy, angular, long-legged, lithe as a young sapling and half mad with the spring.
"Such a child still!" sighed Miss Stanley, as she lifted a beckoning hand.
The children crowded about her, all holding out hot fists full of faded wild flowers.
"Look!" cried one breathlessly. "We found 'em in the hollow. And Nance says if you'll let her, she'll take us next Saturday to the old mill where some yellow vi'lets grow!"
Miss Stanley looked down at the flushed, happy faces; then she put her arm around Nance's shoulder.
"Nancy will not be with us next Saturday," she said regretfully. "She's going home."
Nance Molloy came out of Forest Home, an independent, efficient girl, with clear skin, luminous blue eyes, and shining braids of fair hair. She came full of ideals and new standards and all the terrible wisdom of sixteen, and she dumped them in a mass on the family in Calvary Alley and boldly announced that "what she was going to do was a-plenty!"
But like most reformers, she reckoned too confidently on cooperation. The rest of the Snawdor family had not been to reform school, and it had strong objections to Nance's drastic measures. Her innovations met with bitter opposition from William J., who indignantly declined to have the hitherto respected privacy of his ears and nose invaded, to Mrs. Snawdor, who refused absolutely to sleep with the windows open.
"What's the sense in working your fingers off to buy coal to heat the house if you go an' let out all the hot air over night?" she demanded. "They've filled up yer head with fool notions, but I tell you right now, you ain't goin' to work 'em off on us. You kin just tell that old maid Stanley that when she's had three husbands and five children an' a step, an' managed to live on less'n ten dollars a week, it'll be time enough fer her to be learnin' me tricks!"
"But don't all this mess ever get on your nerves? Don't you ever want to clear out and go to the country?" asked Nance.
"Not me!" said Mrs. Snawdor. "I been fightin' the country all my life. It's bad enough bein' dirt pore, without goin' an' settin' down among the stumps where there ain't nothin' to take yer mind off it."
So whatever reforms Nance contemplated had to be carried out slowly and with great tact. Mrs. Snawdor, having put forth one supreme effort to make the flat sufficiently decent to warrant Nance's return, proposed for the remainder of her life to rest on her laurels. As for the children, they had grown old enough to have decided opinions of their own, and when Nance threw the weight of her influence on the side of order and cleanliness, she was regarded as a traitor in the camp. It was only Mr. Snawdor who sought to uphold her, and Mr. Snawdor was but a broken reed.
Meanwhile the all-important question of getting work was under discussion. Miss Stanley had made several tentative suggestions, but none of them met with Mrs. Snawdor's approval.
"No, I ain't goin' to let you work out in private families!" she declared indignantly. "She's got her cheek to ast it! Did you tell her yer pa was a Molloy? An' Mr. Burks says yer maw was even better born than what Bud was. I'm goin' to git you a job myself. I'm goin' to take you up to Clarke's this very evenin'."
"I don't want to work in a factory!" Nance said discontentedly, looking out of the window into the dirty court below.
"I suppose you want to run a beauty parlor," said Mrs. Snawdor, with scornful reference to Nance's improved appearance. "You might just as well come off them high stilts an' stop puttin' on airs, Dan Lewis has been up to Clarke's goin' on four years now. I hear they're pushin' him right along."
Nance stopped drumming on the window-pane and became suddenly interested. The one thing that had reconciled her to leaving Miss Stanley and the girls at the home was the possibility of seeing Dan again. She wondered what he looked like after these four years, whether he would recognize her, whether he had a sweetheart? She had been home three days now and had caught no glimpse of him.
"We never see nothin' of him," her stepmother told her. "He's took up with the Methodists, an' runs around to meetin's an' things with that there Mis' Purdy."
"Don't he live over Slap Jack's?" asked Nance.
"Yes; he's got his room there still. I hear his ma died las' spring. Flirtin' with the angels by now, I reckon."
The prospect of seeing Dan cheered Nance amazingly. She spent the morning washing and ironing her best shirt-waist and turning the ribbon on her tam-o'-shanter. Every detail of her toilet received scrupulous attention.
It was raining dismally when she and Mrs. Snawdor picked their way across the factory yard that afternoon. The conglomerate mass of buildings known as "Clarke's" loomed somberly against the dull sky. Beside the low central building a huge gas-pipe towered, and the water, trickling down it, made a puddle through which they had to wade to reach the door of the furnace room.
Within they could see the huge, round furnace with its belt of small fiery doors, from which glass-blowers, with long blow-pipes were deftly taking small lumps of moulten glass and blowing them into balls.
"There's Dan!" cried Mrs. Snawdor, and Nance looked eagerly in the direction indicated.
In the red glare of the furnace, a big, awkward, bare-armed young fellow was just turning to roll his red-hot ball on a board. There was a steady look in the gray eyes that scowled slightly under the intense glare, a sure movement of the hands that dropped the elongated roll into the mold. When he saw Mrs. Snawdor's beckoning finger, he came to the door.
"This here is Nance Molloy," said Mrs. Snawdor by way of introduction. "She's about growed up sence you seen her. We come to see about gittin' her a job."
Nance, looking at the strange, stern face above her, withdrew the hand she had held out. Dan did not seem to see her hand any more than he saw her fresh shirt-waist and the hat she had taken so much pains to retrim. After a casual nod he stood looking at the floor and rubbing the toe of his heavy boot against his blow-pipe.
"Sure," he said slowly, "but this is no fit place for a girl, Mrs. Snawdor."
Mrs. Snawdor bristled immediately.
"I ain't astin' yer advice, Dan Lewis. I'm astin' yer help."
Dan looked Nance over in troubled silence.
"Is she sixteen yet?" he asked as impersonally as if she had not been present.
"Yes, an' past. I knowed they'd be scarin' up that dangerous trade business on me next. How long before the foreman'll be here?"
"Any time now," said Dan. "I'll take you into his office."
With a sinking heart, Nance followed them into the crowded room. The heat was stifling, and the air was full of stinging glass dust. All about them boys were running with red hot bottles on big asbestos shovels. She hated the place, and she hated Dan for not being glad to see her.
"They are the carrying-in boys," Dan explained, continuing to address all of his remarks to Mrs. Snawdor. "That's where I began. You wouldn't believe that those kids often run as much as twenty-two miles a day. Watch out there, boy! Be careful!"
But his warning came too late. One of the smaller youngsters had stumbled and dropped his shovel, and a hot bottle had grazed his leg, burning away a bit of the stocking.
"It's all right, Partner," cried Dan, springing forward, "You're not much hurt. I'll fix you up."
But the boy was frightened and refused to let him remove the stocking.
"Let me do it," begged Nance. "I can get it off without hurting him."
And while Dan held the child's leg steady, she bathed and bound it in a way that did credit to Doc's training. Only once daring the process did she look up, and then she was relieved to see instead of the stern face of a strange young man, the compassionate, familiar face of the old Dan she used to know.
The interview with the foreman was of brief duration. He was a thick-set, pimply-faced person whom Dan called Mr. Bean. He swept an appraising eye over the applicant, submitted a few blunt questions to Dan in an undertone, ignored Mrs. Snawdor's voluble comments, and ended by telling Nance to report for work the following week.
As Mrs. Snawdor and Nance took their departure, the former, whose thoughts seldom traveled on a single track, said tentatively:
"Dan Lewis has got to be real nice lookin' sence you seen him, ain't he?"
"Nothin' to brag on," said Nance, still smarting at his indifference. But as she turned the corner of the building, she stole a last look through the window to where Dan was standing at his fiery post, his strong, serious face and broad, bare chest lighted up by the radiance from the glory-hole.
It was with little enthusiasm that Nance presented herself at the factory on Monday morning, ready to enlist in what Bishop Bland called "the noble service of industry." Her work was in the finishing room where a number of girls were crowded at machines and tables, filing, clipping, and packing bottles. Her task was to take the screw-neck bottles that came from the leer, and chip and file their jagged necks and shoulders until all the roughness was removed. It was dirty work, and dangerous for unskilled hands, and she found it difficult to learn.
"Say, kid," said the ugly, hollow-chested girl beside her, "if I'm goin' to be your learner, I want you to be more particular. Between you an' this here other girl, you're fixin' to put my good eye out."
Nance glanced up at the gaunt face with its empty eye socket and then looked quickly away.
"Say," said the other new girl, complainingly, "is it always hot like this in here? I'm most choking."
"We'll git the boss to put in a 'lectric fan fer you," suggested the hollow-chested one, whose name was Mag Gist.
Notwithstanding her distaste for the work, Nance threw herself into it with characteristic vehemence. Speed seemed to be the quality above all others that one must strive for, and speed she was determined to have, regardless of consequences.
"When you learn how to do this, what do you learn next?" she asked presently.
Mag laughed gruffly.
"There ain't no next. If you'd started as a wrapper, you might 'a' worked up a bit, but you never would 'a' got to be a chuck-grinder. I been at this bench four years an' if I don't lose my job, I'll be here four more."
"But if you get to be awful quick, you can make money, can't you?"
"You kin make enough to pay fer two meals a day if yer appetite ain't too good."
Nance's heart sank. It was a blow to find that Mag, who was the cleverest girl in the finishing room, had been filing bottle necks for four years. She stole a glance at her stooped shoulders and sallow skin and the hideous, empty socket of her left eye. What was the good of becoming expert if it only put one where Mag was?
By eleven o'clock there was a sharp pain between her shoulder-blades, and her feet ached so that she angrily kicked off first one shoe, then the other. This was the signal for a general laugh.
"They're kiddin' you fer sheddin' yer shoes," explained Mag, who had laughed louder than anybody. "Greenhorns always do it first thing. By the time you've stepped on a piece of glass onct or twict, you'll be glad enough to climb back into 'em."
After a while one of the girls started a song, and one by one the others joined in. There were numerous verses, and a plaintive refrain that referred to "the joy that ne'er would come again to you and I."
When no more verses could be thought of, there were stories and doubtful jokes which sent the girls into fits of wild laughter.
"Oh, cheese it," said Mag after one of these sallies, "You all orter to behave more before these kids."
"They don't know what we are talkin' about," said a red-haired girl.
"You bet I do," said Nance, with disgust, "but you all give me a sick headache."
When the foreman made his rounds, figures that had begun to droop were galvanized into fresh effort. At Mag's bench he paused.
"How are the fillies making it?" he asked, with a familiar hand on the shoulder of each new girl. Nance's companion dropped her eyes with a simpering smile, but Nance jerked away indignantly.
The foreman looked at the back of the shining head and frowned.
"You'll have to push up the stroke," he said. "Can't you see you lose time by changing your position so often? What makes you fidget so?"
Nance set her teeth resolutely and held her tongue. But her Irish instinct always suffered from restraint and by the time the noon whistle blew, she was in a state of sullen resentment. The thought of her beloved Miss Stanley and what she would think of these surroundings brought a lump into her throat.
"Come on over here," called Mag from a group of girls at the open window. "Don't you mind what Bean says. He's sore on any girl that won't eat outen his dirty hand. You 're as smart again as that other kid. I can tell right off if a girl's got gumption, an' if she's on the straight.
"Chuck that Sunday-school dope," laughed a pretty, red-haired girl named Gert. "You git her in wrong with Bean, an' I wouldn't give a nickel fer her chance."
"You ought to know," said Mag, drily.
The talk ran largely to food and clothes, and Nance listened with growing dismay. It seemed that most of the girls lived in rooming houses and took their meals out.
"Wisht I had a Hamberger," said Mag. "I ain't had a bite of meat fer a month. I always buy my shoes with meat money."
"I git my hats with breakfasts," said another girl. "Fourteen breakfasts makes a dollar-forty. I kin buy a hat fer a dollar-forty-nine that's swell enough fer anybody."
"I gotta have my breakfast," said Mag. "Four cups of coffee ain't nothin' to me."
Gert got up and stretched herself impatiently.
"I'm sick an' tired of hearin' you all talk about eatin'. Mag's idea of Heaven is a place where you spend ten hours makin' money an' two eatin' it up. Some of us ain't built like that. We got to have some fun as we go along, an' we're goin' to git it, you bet your sweet life, one way or the other."
Soon after work was resumed, word was passed around that a big order had come in, and nobody was to quit work until it was made up. A ripple of sullen comment followed this announcement, but the girls bent to their tasks with feverish energy.
At two o'clock the other new girl standing next to Nance grew faint, and had to be stretched on the floor in the midst of the broken glass.
"She's a softie!" whispered Mag to Nance. "This ain't nothin' to what it is in hot weather."
The pain between Nance's shoulders was growing intolerable, and her cut fingers and aching feet made her long to cast herself on the floor beside the other girl and give up the fight. But pride held her to her task. After what seemed to her an eternity she again looked at the big clock over the door. It was only three. How was she ever to endure three more hours when every minute now was an agony?
Mag heard her sigh and turned her head long enough to say:
"Hang yer arms down a spell; that kind of rests 'em. You ain't goin' to flop, too, are you?"
"Not if I can hold out."
"I knowed you was game all right," said Mag, with grim approval.
By six o'clock the last bottle was packed, and Nance washed the blood and dirt off her hands and forced her swollen, aching feet into her shoes. She jerked her jacket and tam-o'-shanter from the long row of hooks, and half blind with weariness, joined the throng of women and girls that jostled one another down the stairs. Every muscle of her body ached, and her whole soul was hot with rebellion. She told herself passionately that nothing in the world could induce her to come back; she was through with factory work forever.
As she limped out into the yard, a totally vanquished little soldier on the battle-field of industry, she spied Dan Lewis standing beside the tall gas-pipe, evidently waiting for somebody. He probably had a sweetheart among all these trooping girls; perhaps it was the pretty, red-haired one named Gert. The thought, dropping suddenly into a surcharged heart, brimmed it over, and Nance had to sweep her fingers across her eyes to brush away the tears.
"I thought I'd missed you," said Dan, quite as a matter of course, as he caught step with her and raised her umbrella.
Nance could have flung her tired arms about him and wept on his broad shoulder for sheer gratitude. To be singled out, like that, before all the girls on her first day, to have a beau, a big beau, pilot her through the crowded streets and into Calvary Alley where all might see, was sufficient to change the dullest sky to rose and lighten the heart of the most discouraged.
On the way home they found little to say, but Nance's aching feet fairly tripped beside those of her tall companion, and when they turned Slap Jack's corner and Dan asked in his slow, deliberate way, "How do you think you are going to like the factory?" Nance answered enthusiastically, "Oh, I like it splendid!"
EIGHT TO SIX
Through that long, wet spring Nance did her ten hours a day, six days in the week and on the seventh washed her clothes and mended them. Her breaking in was a hard one, for she was as quick of tongue as she was of fingers, and her tirades against the monotony, the high speed, and the small pay were frequent and vehement. Every other week when Dan was on the night shift, she made up her mind definitely that she would stand it no longer.
But on the alternate weeks when she never failed to find him waiting at the gas-pipe to take her home, she thought better of it. She loved to slip in under his big cotton umbrella, when the nights were rainy, and hold to his elbow as he shouldered a way for her through the crowd; she liked to be a part of that endless procession of bobbing umbrellas that flowed down the long, wet, glistening street; best of all she liked the distinction of having a "steady" and the envious glances it brought her from the other girls.