The room was very small, very stuffy, and very dark, so dark that a smoking kerosene lamp that burned on a table next the stove hardly lighted it at all, though it was broad day. A big, unshaven man, who sat on the bed, rose when he saw the visitor, and stood uncomfortably shifting his feet and avoiding the professor's eye. The latter's glance was serious, though not unkind, as he asked the woman with the baby if he had found no work yet.
"No," she said, anxiously coming to the rescue, "not yet; he was waitin' for a recommend." But Johnnie had earned two dollars running errands, and, now there was a big fall of snow, his father might get a job of shovelling. The woman's face was worried, yet there was a cheerful note in her voice that somehow made the place seem less discouraging than it was. The baby she nursed was not much larger than a middle-sized doll. Its little face looked thin and wan. It had been very sick, she explained, but the doctor said it was mending now. That was good, said the professor, and patted one of the bigger children on the head.
There were six of them, of all sizes, from Johnnie, who could run errands, down. They were busy fixing up a Christmas tree that half filled the room, though it was of the very smallest. Yet, it was a real Christmas tree, left over from the Sunday-school stock, and it was dressed up at that. Pictures from the colored supplement of a Sunday newspaper hung and stood on every branch, and three pieces of colored glass, suspended on threads that shone in the smoky lamplight, lent color and real beauty to the show. The children were greatly tickled.
"John put it up," said the mother, by way of explanation, as the professor eyed it approvingly. "There ain't nothing to eat on it. If there was, it wouldn't be there a minute. The childer be always a-searchin' in it."
"But there must be, or else it isn't a real Christmas tree," said the professor, and brought out the little dollar. "This is a dollar which a friend gave me for the children's Christmas, and she sends her love with it. Now, you buy them some things and a few candles, Mrs. Ferguson, and then a good supper for the rest of the family. Good night, and a Merry Christmas to you. I think myself the baby is getting better." It had just opened its eyes and laughed at the tree.
The professor was not very far on his way toward keeping his appointment with Santa Claus before Mrs. Ferguson was at the grocery laying in her dinner. A dollar goes a long way when it is the only one in the house; and when she had everything, including two cents' worth of flitter-gold, four apples, and five candles for the tree, the grocer footed up her bill on the bag that held her potatoes—ninety-eight cents. Mrs. Ferguson gave him the little dollar.
"What's this?" said the grocer, his fat smile turning cold as he laid a restraining hand on the full basket. "That ain't no good."
"It's a dollar, ain't it?" said the woman, in alarm. "It's all right. I know the man that give it to me."
"It ain't all right in this store," said the grocer, sternly. "Put them things back. I want none o' that."
The woman's eyes filled with tears as she slowly took the lid off the basket and lifted out the precious bag of potatoes. They were waiting for that dinner at home. The children were even then camping on the door-step to take her in to the tree in triumph. And now—
For the second time a restraining hand was laid upon her basket; but this time it was not the grocer's. A gentleman who had come in to order a Christmas turkey had overheard the conversation, and had seen the strange bill.
"It is all right," he said to the grocer. "Give it to me. Here is a dollar bill for it of the kind you know. If all your groceries were as honest as this bill, Mr. Schmidt, it would be a pleasure to trade with you. Don't be afraid to trust Uncle Sam where you see his promise to pay."
The gentleman held the door open for Mrs. Ferguson, and heard the shout of the delegation awaiting her on the stoop as he went down the street.
"I wonder where that came from, now," he mused. "Coupons in Bedford Street! I suppose somebody sent it to the woman for a Christmas gift. Hello! Here are old Thomas and Snowflake. Now, wouldn't it surprise her old stomach if I gave her a Christmas gift of oats? If only the shock doesn't kill her! Thomas! Oh, Thomas!"
The old man thus hailed stopped and awaited the gentleman's coming. He was a cartman who did odd jobs through the ward, so picking up a living for himself and the white horse, which the boys had dubbed Snowflake in a spirit of fun. They were a well-matched old pair, Thomas and his horse. One was not more decrepit than the other.
There was a tradition along the docks, where Thomas found a job now and then, and Snowflake an occasional straw to lunch on, that they were of an age, but this was denied by Thomas.
"See here," said the gentleman, as he caught up with them; "I want Snowflake to keep Christmas, Thomas. Take this and buy him a bag of oats. And give it to him carefully, do you hear?—not all at once, Thomas. He isn't used to it."
"Gee whizz!" said the old man, rubbing his eyes with his cap, as his friend passed out of sight, "oats fer Christmas! G'lang, Snowflake; yer in luck."
The feed-man put on his spectacles and looked Thomas over at the strange order. Then he scanned the little dollar, first on one side, then on the other.
"Never seed one like him," he said. "'Pears to me he is mighty short. Wait till I send round to the hockshop. He'll know, if anybody."
The man at the pawnshop did not need a second look. "Why, of course," he said, and handed a dollar bill over the counter. "Old Thomas, did you say? Well, I am blamed if the old man ain't got a stocking after all. They're a sly pair, he and Snowflake."
Business was brisk that day at the pawnshop. The door-bell tinkled early and late, and the stock on the shelves grew. Bundle was added to bundle. It had been a hard winter so far. Among the callers in the early afternoon was a young girl in a gingham dress and without other covering, who stood timidly at the counter and asked for three dollars on a watch, a keepsake evidently, which she was loath to part with. Perhaps it was the last glimpse of brighter days. The pawnbroker was doubtful; it was not worth so much. She pleaded hard, while he compared the number of the movement with a list sent in from Police Headquarters.
"Two," he said decisively at last, snapping the case shut—"two or nothing." The girl handed over the watch with a troubled sigh. He made out a ticket and gave it to her with a handful of silver change.
Was it the sigh and her evident distress, or was it the little dollar? As she turned to go, he called her back.
"Here, it is Christmas!" he said. "I'll run the risk." And he added the coupon to the little heap.
The girl looked at it and at him questioningly.
"It is all right," he said; "you can take it; I'm running short of change. Bring it back if they won't take it. I'm good for it." Uncle Sam had achieved a backer.
In Grand Street the holiday crowds jammed every store in their eager hunt for bargains. In one of them, at the knit-goods counter, stood the girl from the pawnshop, picking out a thick, warm shawl. She hesitated between a gray and a maroon-colored one, and held them up to the light.
"For you?" asked the salesgirl, thinking to aid her. She glanced at her thin dress and shivering form as she said it.
"No," said the girl; "for mother; she is poorly and needs it." She chose the gray, and gave the salesgirl her handful of money.
The girl gave back the coupon.
"They don't go," she said; "give me another, please."
"But I haven't got another," said the girl, looking apprehensively at the shawl. "The—Mr. Feeney said it was all right. Take it to the desk, please, and ask."
The salesgirl took the bill and the shawl, and went to the desk. She came back, almost immediately, with the storekeeper, who looked sharply at the customer and noted the number of the coupon.
"It is all right," he said, satisfied apparently by the inspection; "a little unusual, only. We don't see many of them. Can I help you, miss?" And he attended her to the door.
In the street there was even more of a Christmas show going on than in the stores. Pedlers of toys, of mottoes, of candles, and of knickknacks of every description stood in rows along the curb, and were driving a lively trade. Their push-carts were decorated with fir branches—even whole Christmas trees. One held a whole cargo of Santa Clauses in a bower of green, each one with a cedar-bush in his folded arms, as a soldier carries his gun. The lights were blazing out in the stores, and the hucksters' torches were flaring at the corners. There was Christmas in the very air and Christmas in the storekeeper's till. It had been a very busy day. He thought of it with a satisfied nod as he stood a moment breathing the brisk air of the winter day, absently fingering the coupon the girl had paid for the shawl. A thin voice at his elbow said: "Merry Christmas, Mr. Stein! Here's yer paper."
It was the newsboy who left the evening papers at the door every night. The storekeeper knew him, and something about the struggle they had at home to keep the roof over their heads. Mike was a kind of protege of his. He had helped to get him his route.
"Wait a bit, Mike," he said. "You'll be wanting your Christmas from me. Here's a dollar. It's just like yourself: it is small, but it is all right. You take it home and have a good time."
Was it the message with which it had been sent forth from far away in the country, or what was it? Whatever it was, it was just impossible for the little dollar to lie still in the pocket while there was want to be relieved, mouths to be filled, or Christmas lights to be lit. It just couldn't, and it didn't.
Mike stopped around the corner of Allen Street, and gave three whoops expressive of his approval of Mr. Stein; having done which, he sidled up to the first lighted window out of range to examine his gift. His enthusiasm changed to open-mouthed astonishment as he saw the little dollar. His jaw fell. Mike was not much of a scholar, and could not make out the inscription on the coupon; but he had heard of shinplasters as something they "had in the war," and he took this to be some sort of a ten-cent piece. The policeman on the block might tell. Just now he and Mike were hunk. They had made up a little difference they'd had, and if any one would know, the cop surely would. And off he went in search of him.
Mr. McCarthy pulled off his gloves, put his club under his arm, and studied the little dollar with contracted brow. He shook his head as he handed it back, and rendered the opinion that it was "some dom swindle that's ag'in' the law." He advised Mike to take it back to Mr. Stein, and added, as he prodded him in an entirely friendly manner in the ribs with his locust, that if it had been the week before he might have "run him in" for having the thing in his possession. As it happened, Mr. Stein was busy and not to be seen, and Mike went home between hope and fear, with his doubtful prize.
There was a crowd at the door of the tenement, and Mike saw, before he had reached it, running, that it clustered about an ambulance that was backed up to the sidewalk. Just as he pushed his way through the throng it drove off, its clanging gong scattering the people right and left. A little girl sat weeping on the top step of the stoop. To her Mike turned for information.
"Susie, what's up?" he asked, confronting her with his armful of papers. "Who's got hurted?"
"It's papa," sobbed the girl. "He ain't hurted. He's sick, and he was took that bad he had to go, an' to-morrer is Christmas, an'—oh, Mike!"
It is not the fashion of Essex Street to slop over. Mike didn't. He just set his mouth to a whistle and took a turn down the hall to think. Susie was his chum. There were seven in her flat; in his only four, including two that made wages. He came back from his trip with his mind made up.
"Suse," he said, "come on in. You take this, Suse, see! an' let the kids have their Christmas. Mr. Stein give it to me. It's a little one, but if it ain't all right I'll take it back and get one that is good. Go on, now, Suse, you hear?" And he was gone.
There was a Christmas tree that night in Susie's flat, with candles and apples and shining gold, but the little dollar did not pay for it. That rested securely in the purse of the charity visitor who had come that afternoon, just at the right time, as it proved. She had heard the story of Mike and his sacrifice, and had herself given the children a one-dollar bill for the coupon. They had their Christmas, and a joyful one, too, for the lady went up to the hospital and brought back word that Susie's father would be all right with rest and care, which he was now getting. Mike came in and helped them "sack" the tree when the lady was gone. He gave three more whoops for Mr. Stein, three for the lady, and three for the hospital doctor to even things up. Essex Street was all right that night.
"Do you know, professor," said that learned man's wife, when, after supper, he had settled down in his easy-chair to admire the Noah's ark and the duckses' babies and the rest, all of which had arrived safely by express ahead of him and were waiting to be detailed to their appropriate stockings while the children slept—"do you know, I heard such a story of a little newsboy to-day. It was at the meeting of our district charity committee this evening. Miss Linder, our visitor, came right from the house." And she told the story of Mike and Susie.
"And I just got the little dollar bill to keep. Here it is." She took the coupon out of her purse and passed it to her husband.
"Eh! what?" said the professor, adjusting his spectacles and reading the number. "If here isn't my little dollar come back to me! Why, where have you been, little one? I left you in Bedford Street this morning, and here you come by way of Essex. Well, I declare!" And he told his wife how he had received it in a letter in the morning.
"John," she said, with a sudden impulse,—she didn't know, and neither did he, that it was the charm of the little dollar that was working again,—"John, I guess it is a sin to stop it. Jones's children won't have any Christmas tree, because they can't afford it. He told me so this morning when he fixed the furnace. And the baby is sick. Let us give them the little dollar. He is here in the kitchen now."
And they did; and the Joneses, and I don't know how many others, had a Merry Christmas because of the blessed little dollar that carried Christmas cheer and good luck wherever it went. For all I know, it may be going yet. Certainly it is a sin to stop it, and if any one has locked it up without knowing that he locked up the Christmas dollar, let him start it right out again. He can tell it easily enough. If he just looks at the number, that's the one.
He was an every-day tough, bull-necked, square-jawed, red of face, and with his hair cropped short in the fashion that rules at Sing Sing and is admired of Battle Row. Any one could have told it at a glance. The bruised and wrathful face of the policeman who brought him to Mulberry Street, to be "stood up" before the detectives in the hope that there might be something against him to aggravate the offence of beating an officer with his own club, bore witness to it. It told a familiar story. The prisoner's gang had started a fight in the street, probably with a scheme of ultimate robbery in view, and the police had come upon it unexpectedly. The rest had got away with an assortment of promiscuous bruises. The "Kid" stood his ground, and went down with two "cops" on top of him after a valiant battle, in which he had performed the feat that entitled him to honorable mention henceforth in the felonious annals of the gang. There was no surrender in his sullen look as he stood before the desk, his hard face disfigured further by a streak of half-dried blood, reminiscent of the night's encounter. The fight had gone against him—that was all right. There was a time for getting square. Till then he was man enough to take his medicine, let them do their worst.
It was there, plain as could be, in his set jaws and dogged bearing as he came out, numbered now and indexed in the rogues' gallery, and started for the police court between two officers. It chanced that I was going the same way, and joined company. Besides, I have certain theories concerning toughs which my friend the sergeant says are rot, and I was not averse to testing them on the Kid.
But the Kid was a bad subject. He replied to my friendly advances with a muttered curse, or not at all, and upset all my notions in the most reckless way. Conversation had ceased before we were halfway across to Broadway. He "wanted no guff," and I left him to his meditations respecting his defenceless state. At Broadway there was a jam of trucks, and we stopped at the corner to wait for an opening.
It all happened so quickly that only a confused picture of it is in my mind till this day. A sudden start, a leap, and a warning cry, and the Kid had wrenched himself loose. He was free. I was dimly conscious of a rush of blue and brass; and then I saw—the whole street saw—a child, a toddling baby, in the middle of the railroad track, right in front of the coming car. It reached out its tiny hand toward the madly clanging bell and crowed. A scream rose wild and piercing above the tumult; men struggled with a frantic woman on the curb, and turned their heads away—
And then there stood the Kid, with the child in his arms, unhurt. I see him now, as he set it down, gently as any woman, trying with lingering touch to unclasp the grip of the baby hand upon his rough finger. I see the hard look coming back into his face as the policeman, red and out of breath, twisted the nipper on his wrist, with a half-uncertain aside to me, "Them toughs there ain't no depending on, nohow." Sullen, defiant, planning vengeance, I see him led away to jail. Ruffian and thief! The police blotter said so.
But, even so, the Kid had proved that my theories about toughs were not rot. Who knows but that, like sergeants, the blotter may be sometimes mistaken?
WHEN THE LETTER CAME
"To-morrow it will come," Godfrey Krueger had said that night to his landlord. "To-morrow it will surely come, and then I shall have money. Soon I shall be rich, richer than you can think."
And the landlord of the Forsyth Street tenement, who in his heart liked the gray-haired inventor, but who had rooms to let, grumbled something about a to-morrow that never came.
"Oh, but it will come," said Krueger, turning on the stairs and shading the lamp with his hand, the better to see his landlord's good-natured face; "you know the application has been advanced. It is bound to be granted, and to-night I shall finish my ship."
Now, as he sat alone in his room at his work, fitting, shaping, and whittling with restless hands, he had to admit to himself that it was time it came. Two whole days he had lived on a crust, and he was starving. He had worked and waited thirteen hard years for the success that had more than once been almost within his grasp, only to elude it again. It had never seemed nearer and surer than now, and there was need of it. He had come to the jumping-off place. All his money was gone, to the last cent, and his application for a pension hung fire in Washington unaccountably. It had been advanced to the last stage, and word that it had been granted might be received any day. But the days slipped by and no word came. For two days he had lived on faith and a crust, but they were giving out together. If only—
Well, when it did come, what with his back pay for all those years, he would have the means to build his ship, and hunger and want would be forgotten. He should have enough. And the world would know that Godfrey Krueger was not an idle crank.
"In six months I shall cross the ocean to Europe in twenty hours in my air-ship," he had said in showing the landlord his models, "with as many as want to go. Then I shall become a millionnaire and shall make you one, too." And the landlord had heaved a sigh at the thought of his twenty-seven dollars, and doubtingly wished it might be so.
Weak and famished, Krueger bent to his all but finished task. Before morning he should know that it would work as he had planned. There remained only to fit the last parts together. The idea of building an air-ship had come to him while he lay dying with scurvy, as they thought, in a Confederate prison, and he had never abandoned it. He had been a teacher and a student, and was a trained mathematician. There could be no flaw in his calculations. He had worked them out again and again. The energy developed by his plan was great enough to float a ship capable of carrying almost any burden, and of directing it against the strongest head winds. Now, upon the threshold of success, he was awaiting merely the long-delayed pension to carry his dream into life. To-morrow would bring it, and with it an end to all his waiting and suffering.
One after another the lights went out in the tenement. Only the one in the inventor's room burned steadily through the night. The policeman on the beat noticed the lighted window, and made a mental note of the fact that some one was sick. Once during the early hours he stopped short to listen. Upon the morning breeze was borne a muffled sound, as of a distant explosion. But all was quiet again, and he went on, thinking that his senses had deceived him. The dawn came in the eastern sky, and with it the stir that attends the awakening of another day. The lamp burned steadily yet behind the dim window pane.
The milkmen came, and the push-cart criers. The policeman was relieved, and another took his place. Lastly came the mail-carrier with a large official envelope marked, "Pension Bureau, Washington." He shouted up the stairway:—
The landlord came to the door and was glad. So it had come, had it?
"Run, Emma," he said to his little daughter, "run and tell Mr. Godfrey his letter has come."
The child skipped up the steps gleefully. She knocked at the inventor's door, but no answer came. It was not locked, and she pushed it open. The little lamp smoked yet on the table. The room was strewn with broken models and torn papers that littered the floor. Something there frightened the child. She held to the banisters and called faintly:—
"Papa! Oh, papa!"
They went in together on tiptoe without knowing why, the postman with the big official letter in his hand. The morrow had kept its promise. Of hunger and want there was an end. On the bed, stretched at full length, with his Grand Army hat flung beside him, lay the inventor, dead. A little round hole in the temple, from which a few drops of blood had flowed, told what remained of his story. In the night disillusion had come, with failure.
THE CAT TOOK THE KOSHER MEAT
The tenement No. 76 Madison Street had been for some time scandalized by the hoidenish ways of Rose Baruch, the little cloak maker on the top floor. Rose was seventeen, and boarded with her mother in the Pincus family. But for her harum-scarum ways she might, in the opinion of the tenement, be a nice girl and some day a good wife; but these were unbearable.
For the tenement is a great working hive in which nothing has value unless exchangeable for gold. Rose's animal spirits, which long hours and low wages had no power to curb, were exchangeable only for wrath in the tenement. Her noisy feet on the stairs when she came home woke up all the tenants, and made them swear at the loss of the precious moments of sleep which were their reserve capital. Rose was so Americanized, they said impatiently among themselves, that nothing could be done with her.
Perhaps they were mistaken. Perhaps Rose's stout refusal to be subdued even by the tenement was their hope, as it was her capital. Perhaps her spiteful tread upon the stairs heralded the coming protest of the free-born American against slavery, industrial or otherwise, in which their day of deliverance was dawning. It may be so. They didn't see it. How should they? They were not Americanized; not yet.
However that might be, Rose came to the end that was to be expected. The judgment of the tenement was, for the time, borne out by experience. This was the way of it:—
Rose's mother had bought several pounds of kosher meat and put it into the ice-box—that is to say, on the window-sill of their fifth-floor flat. Other ice-box these East Side sweaters' tenements have none. And it does well enough in cold weather, unless the cat gets around, or, as it happened in this case, it slides off and falls down. Rose's breakfast and dinner disappeared down the air-shaft, seventy feet or more, at 10.30 P.M.
There was a family consultation as to what should be done. It was late, and everybody was in bed, but Rose declared herself equal to the rousing of the tenants in the first floor rear, through whose window she could climb into the shaft for the meat. She had done it before for a nickel. Enough said. An expedition set out at once from the top floor to recover the meat. Mrs. Baruch, Rose, and Jake, the boarder, went in a body.
Arrived before the Knauff family's flat on the ground floor, they opened proceedings by a vigorous attack on the door. The Knauffs woke up in a fright, believing that the house was full of burglars. They were stirring to barricade the door, when they recognized Rose's voice and were calmed. Let in, the expedition explained matters, and was grudgingly allowed to take a look out of the window in the air-shaft. Yes! there was the meat, as yet safe from rats. The thing was to get it.
The boarder tried first, but crawled back frightened. He couldn't reach it. Rose jerked him impatiently away.
"Leg go!" she said. "I can do it. I was there wunst. You're no good."
And she bent over the window-sill, reaching down until her toes barely touched the floor, when all of a sudden, before they could grab her skirts, over she went, heels over head, down the shaft, and disappeared.
The shrieks of the Knauffs, of Mrs. Baruch, and of Jake, the boarder, were echoed from below. Rose's voice rose in pain and in bitter lamentation from the bottom of the shaft. She had fallen fully fifteen feet, and in the fall had hurt her back badly, if, indeed, she had not injured herself beyond repair. Her cries suggested nothing less. They filled the tenement, rising to every floor and appealing at every bedroom window.
In a minute the whole building was astir from cellar to roof. A dozen heads were thrust out of every window, and answering wails carried messages of helpless sympathy to the once so unpopular Rose. Upon this concert of sorrow the police broke in with anxious inquiry as to what was the matter.
When they found out, a second relief expedition was organized. It reached Rose through the basement coal-bin, and she was carried out and sent to the Gouverneur Hospital. There she lies, unable to move, and the tenement wonders what is amiss that it has lost its old spirits. It has not even anything left to swear at.
The cat took the kosher meat.
It was Christmas Eve over on the East Side. Darkness was closing in on a cold, hard day. The light that struggled through the frozen windows of the delicatessen store and the saloon on the corner, fell upon men with empty dinner-pails who were hurrying homeward, their coats buttoned tightly, and heads bent against the steady blast from the river, as if they were butting their way down the street.
The wind had forced the door of the saloon ajar, and was whistling through the crack; but in there it seemed to make no one afraid. Between roars of laughter, the clink of glasses and the rattle of dice on the hardwood counter were heard out in the street. More than one of the passers-by who came within range was taken with an extra shiver in which the vision of wife and little ones waiting at home for his coming was snuffed out, as he dropped in to brace up. The lights were long out when the silent streets reechoed his unsteady steps toward home, where the Christmas welcome had turned to dread.
But in this twilight hour they burned brightly yet, trying hard to pierce the bitter cold outside with a ray of warmth and cheer. Where the lamps in the delicatessen store made a mottled streak of brightness across the flags, two little boys stood with their noses flattened against the window. The warmth inside, and the lights, had made little islands of clear space on the frosty pane, affording glimpses of the wealth within, of the piles of smoked herring, of golden cheese, of sliced bacon and generous, fat-bellied hams; of the rows of odd-shaped bottles and jars on the shelves that held there was no telling what good things, only it was certain that they must be good from the looks of them.
And the heavenly smell of spices and things that reached the boys through the open door each time the tinkling bell announced the coming or going of a customer! Better than all, back there on the top shelf the stacks of square honey-cakes, with their frosty coats of sugar, tied in bundles with strips of blue paper.
The wind blew straight through the patched and threadbare jackets of the lads as they crept closer to the window, struggling hard by breathing on the pane to make their peep-holes bigger, to take in the whole of the big cake with the almonds set in; but they did not heed it.
"Jim!" piped the smaller of the two, after a longer stare than usual; "hey, Jim! them's Sante Claus's. See 'em?"
"Sante Claus!" snorted the other, scornfully, applying his eye to the clear spot on the pane. "There ain't no ole duffer like dat. Them's honey-cakes. Me 'n' Tom had a bite o' one wunst."
"There ain't no Sante Claus?" retorted the smaller shaver, hotly, at his peep-hole. "There is, too. I seen him myself when he cum to our alley last—"
"What's youse kids a-scrappin' fur?" broke in a strange voice.
Another boy, bigger, but dirtier and tougher looking than either of the two, had come up behind them unobserved. He carried an armful of unsold "extras" under one arm. The other was buried to the elbow in the pocket of his ragged trousers.
The "kids" knew him, evidently, and the smallest eagerly accepted him as umpire.
"It's Jim w'at says there ain't no Sante Claus, and I seen him—"
"Jim!" demanded the elder ragamuffin, sternly, looking hard at the culprit; "Jim! yere a chump! No Sante Claus? What're ye givin' us? Now, watch me!"
With utter amazement the boys saw him disappear through the door under the tinkling bell into the charmed precincts of smoked herring, jam, and honey-cakes. Petrified at their peep-holes, they watched him, in the veritable presence of Santa Claus himself with the fir-branch, fish out five battered pennies from the depths of his pocket and pass them over to the woman behind the jars, in exchange for one of the bundles of honey-cakes tied with blue. As if in a dream they saw him issue forth with the coveted prize.
"There, kid!" he said, holding out the two fattest and whitest cakes to Santa Claus's champion; "there's yer Christmas. Run along, now, to yer barracks; and you, Jim, here's one for you, though yer don't desarve it. Mind ye let the kid alone."
"This one'll have to do for me grub, I guess. I ain't sold me 'Newses,' and the ole man'll kick if I bring 'em home."
Before the shuffling feet of the ragamuffins hurrying homeward had turned the corner, the last mouthful of the newsboy's supper was smothered in a yell of "Extree!" as he shot across the street to intercept a passing stranger.
As the evening wore on, it grew rawer and more blustering still. Flakes of dry snow that stayed where they fell, slowly tracing the curb-lines, the shutters, and the door-steps of the tenements with gathering white, were borne up on the storm from the water. To the right and left stretched endless streets between the towering barracks, as beneath frowning cliffs pierced with a thousand glowing eyes that revealed the watch-fires within—a mighty city of cave-dwellers held in the thraldom of poverty and want.
Outside there was yet hurrying to and fro. Saloon doors were slamming, and bare-legged urchins, carrying beer-jugs, hugged the walls close for shelter. From the depths of a blind alley floated out the discordant strains of a vagabond brass band "blowing in" the yule of the poor. Banished by police ordinance from the street, it reaped a scant harvest of pennies for Christmas cheer from the windows opening on the back yard. Against more than one pane showed the bald outline of a forlorn little Christmas tree, some stray branch of a hemlock picked up at the grocer's and set in a pail for "the childer" to dance around, a dime's worth of candy and tinsel on the boughs.
From the attic over the way came, in spells between, the gentle tones of a German song about the Christ-child. Christmas in the East Side tenements begins with the sunset on the "Holy Eve," except where the name is as a threat or a taunt. In a hundred such homes the whir of many sewing-machines, worked by the sweater's slaves with weary feet and aching backs, drowned every feeble note of joy that struggled to make itself heard above the noise of the great treadmill.
To these what was Christmas but the name for suffering, reminder of lost kindred and liberty, of the slavery of eighteen hundred years, freedom from which was purchased only with gold. Ay, gold! The gold that had power to buy freedom yet, to buy the good-will, ay, and the good name, of the oppressor, with his houses and land. At the thought the tired eye glistened, the aching back straightened, and to the weary foot there came new strength to finish the long task while the city slept.
Where a narrow passageway put in between two big tenements to a ramshackle rear barrack, Nibsy, the newsboy, halted in the shadow of the doorway and stole a long look down the dark alley.
He toyed uncertainly with his still unsold papers—worn dirty and ragged as his clothes by this time—before he ventured in, picking his way between barrels and heaps of garbage; past the Italian cobbler's hovel, where a tallow dip, stuck in a cracked beer-glass, before a picture of the "Mother of God," showed that even he knew it was Christmas and liked to show it; past the Sullivan flat, where blows and drunken curses mingled with the shriek of women, as Nibsy had heard many nights before this one.
He shuddered as he felt his way past the door, partly with a premonition of what was in store for himself, if the "old man" was at home, partly with a vague, uncomfortable feeling that somehow Christmas Eve should be different from other nights, even in the alley; down to its farthest end, to the last rickety flight of steps that led into the filth and darkness of the tenement. Up this he crept, three flights, to a door at which he stopped and listened, hesitating, as he had stopped at the entrance to the alley; then, with a sudden, defiant gesture, he pushed it open and went in.
A bare and cheerless room; a pile of rags for a bed in the corner, another in the dark alcove, miscalled bedroom; under the window a broken candle and an iron-bound chest, upon which sat a sad-eyed woman with hard lines in her face, peeling potatoes in a pan; in the middle of the room a rusty stove, with a pile of wood, chopped on the floor alongside. A man on his knees in front fanning the fire with an old slouch hat. With each breath of draught he stirred, the crazy old pipe belched forth torrents of smoke at every joint. As Nibsy entered, the man desisted from his efforts and sat up, glaring at him—a villanous ruffian's face, scowling with anger.
"Late ag'in!" he growled; "an' yer papers not sold. What did I tell yer, brat, if ye dared—"
"Tom! Tom!" broke in the wife, in a desperate attempt to soothe the ruffian's temper. "The boy can't help it, an' it's Christmas Eve. For the love o'—"
"The devil take yer rot and yer brat!" shouted the man, mad with the fury of passion. "Let me at him!" and, reaching over, he seized a heavy knot of wood and flung it at the head of the boy.
Nibsy had remained just inside the door, edging slowly toward his mother, but with a watchful eye on the man at the stove. At the first movement of his hand toward the woodpile he sprang for the stairway with the agility of a cat, and just dodged the missile. It struck the door, as he slammed it behind him, with force enough to smash the panel.
Down the three flights in as many jumps he went, and through the alley, over barrels and barriers, never stopping once till he reached the street, and curses and shouts were left behind.
In his flight he had lost his unsold papers, and he felt ruefully in his pocket as he went down the street, pulling his rags about him as much from shame as to keep out the cold.
Four pennies were all he had left after his Christmas treat to the two little lads from the barracks; not enough for supper or for a bed; and it was getting colder all the time.
On the sidewalk in front of the notion store a belated Christmas party was in progress. The children from the tenements in the alley and across the way were having a game of blind-man's-buff, groping blindly about in the crowd to catch each other. They hailed Nibsy with shouts of laughter, calling to him to join in.
"We're having Christmas!" they yelled.
Nibsy did not hear them. He was thinking, thinking, the while turning over his four pennies at the bottom of his pocket. Thinking if Christmas was ever to come to him, and the children's Santa Claus to find his alley where the baby slept within reach of her father's cruel hand. As for him, he had never known anything but blows and curses. He could take care of himself. But his mother and the baby—And then it came to him with shuddering cold that it was getting late, and that he must find a place to sleep.
He weighed in his mind the merits of two or three places where he was in the habit of hiding from the "cops" when the alley got to be too hot for him.
There was the hay barge down by the dock, with the watchman who got drunk sometimes, and so gave the boys a chance. The chances were at least even of its being available on Christmas Eve, and of Santa Claus having thus done him a good turn after all.
Then there was the snug berth in the sand-box you could curl all up in. Nibsy thought with regret of its being, like the hay barge, so far away and to windward, too.
Down by the printing-offices there were the steam gratings, and a chance corner in the cellars, stories and stories underground, where the big presses keep up such a clatter from midnight till far into the day.
As he passed them in review, Nibsy made up his mind with sudden determination, and, setting his face toward the south, made off down town.
* * * * *
The rumble of the last departing news-wagon over the pavement, now buried deep in snow, had died away in the distance, when, from out of the bowels of the earth there issued a cry, a cry of mortal terror and pain that was echoed by a hundred throats.
From one of the deep cellar-ways a man ran out, his clothes and hair and beard afire; on his heels a breathless throng of men and boys; following them, close behind, a rush of smoke and fire.
The clatter of the presses ceased suddenly, to be followed quickly by the clangor of hurrying fire-bells. With hooks and axes the firemen rushed in; hose was let down through the manholes, and down there in the depths the battle was fought and won.
The building was saved; but in the midst of the rejoicing over the victory there fell a sudden silence. From the cellar-way a grimy, helmeted figure arose, with something black and scorched in his arms. A tarpaulin was spread upon the snow and upon it he laid his burden, while the silent crowd made room and word went over to the hospital for the doctor to come quickly.
Very gently they lifted poor little Nibsy—for it was he, caught in his berth by a worse enemy than the "cop" or the watchman of the hay barge—into the ambulance that bore him off to the hospital cot, too late.
Conscious only of a vague discomfort that had succeeded terror and pain, Nibsy wondered uneasily why they were all so kind. Nobody had taken the trouble to as much as notice him before. When he had thrust his papers into their very faces they had pushed him roughly aside.
Nibsy, unhurt and able to fight his way, never had a show. Sick and maimed and sore, he was being made much of, though he had been caught where the boys were forbidden to go. Things were queer, anyhow, and—
The room was getting so dark that he could hardly see the doctor's kindly face, and had to grip his hand tightly to make sure that he was there; almost as dark as the stairs in the alley he had come down in such a hurry.
There was the baby now—poor baby—and mother—and then a great blank, and it was all a mystery to poor Nibsy no longer. For, just as a wild-eyed woman pushed her way through the crowd of nurses and doctors to his bedside, crying for her boy, Nibsy gave up his soul to God.
* * * * *
It was very quiet in the alley. Christmas had come and gone. Upon the last door a bow of soiled crape was nailed up with two tacks. It had done duty there a dozen times before, that year.
Upstairs, Nibsy was at home, and for once the neighbors, one and all, old and young, came to see him.
Even the father, ruffian that he was, offered no objection. Cowed and silent, he sat in the corner by the window farthest from where the plain little coffin stood, with the lid closed down.
A couple of the neighbor-women were talking in low tones by the stove, when there came a timid knock at the door. Nobody answering, it was pushed open, first a little, then far enough to admit the shrinking form of a little ragamuffin, the smaller of the two who had stood breathing peep-holes on the window pane of the delicatessen store the night before when Nibsy came along.
He dragged with him a hemlock branch, the leavings from some Christmas tree at the grocery.
"It's from Sante Claus," he said, laying it on the coffin. "Nibsy knows." And he went out.
Santa Claus had come to Nibsy, after all, in his alley. And Nibsy knew.
IN THE CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL
The fact was printed the other day that the half-hundred children or more who are in the hospitals on North Brother Island had no playthings, not even a rattle, to make the long days skip by, which, set in smallpox, scarlet fever, and measles, must be longer there than anywhere else in the world. The toys that were brought over there with a consignment of nursery tots who had the typhus fever had been worn clean out, except some fish horns which the doctor frowned on, and which were therefore not allowed at large. Not as much as a red monkey on a yellow stick was there left on the island to make the youngsters happy.
That afternoon a big, hearty-looking man came into the office with the paper in his hand, and demanded to see the editor. He had come, he said, to see to it that those sick youngsters got the playthings they were entitled to; and a regular Santa Claus he proved to the friendless little colony on the lonely island; for he left a crisp fifty-dollar note behind when he went away without giving his name. The single condition was attached to the gift that it should be spent buying toys for the children on North Brother Island.
Accordingly, a strange invading army took the island by storm three or four nights ago. Under cover of the darkness it had itself ferried over from One Hundred and Thirty-eighth Street in the department yawl, and before morning it was in undisputed possession. It has come to stay. Not a doll or a sheep will ever leave the island again. They may riot upon it as they please, within certain well-defined limits, but none of them can ever cross the channel to the mainland again, unless it be the rubber dolls who can swim, so it is said. Here is the muster-roll:—
Six sheep (four with lambs), six fairies (big dolls in street dress), twelve rubber dolls (in woollen jackets), four railroad trains, twenty-eight base-balls, twenty rubber balls, six big painted (Scotch plaid) rubber balls, six still bigger ditto, seven boxes of blocks, half a dozen music-boxes, twenty-four rattles, six bubble (soap) toys, twelve small engines, six games of dominos, twelve rubber toys (old woman who lived in a shoe, etc.), five wooden toys (bad bear, etc.), thirty-six horse reins.
As there is only one horse on the island, and that one a very steady-going steed in no urgent need of restraint, this last item might seem superfluous, but only to the uninstructed mind. Within a brief week half the boys and girls on the island that are out of bed long enough to stand on their feet will be transformed into ponies and the other half into drivers, and flying teams will go cavorting around to the tune of "Johnny, Get your Gun," and the "Jolly Brothers Gallop," as they are ground out of the music-boxes by little fingers that but just now toyed feebly with the balusters on the golden stair.
That music! When I went over to the island it fell upon my ears in little drops of sweet melody, as soon as I came in sight of the nurses' quarters. I listened, but couldn't make out the tune. The drops seemed mixed. When I opened the door upon one of the nurses, Dr. Dixon, and the hospital matron, each grinding his or her music for all there was in it, and looking perfectly happy withal, I understood why.
They were all playing different tunes at the same time, the nurse "When the Robins Nest Again," Dr. Dixon "Nancy Lee," and the matron "Sweet Violets." A little child stood by in open-mouthed admiration, that became ecstasy when I joined in with "The Babies on our Block." It was all for the little one's benefit, and she thought it beautiful without a doubt.
The storekeeper, knowing that music hath charms to soothe the breast of even a typhus-fever patient, had thrown in a dozen boxes as his own gift. Thus one good deed brings on another, and a good deal more than fifty dollars' worth of happiness will be ground out on the island before there is an end of the music.
There is one little girl in the measles ward already who will eat only when her nurse sits by grinding out "Nancy Lee." She cannot be made to swallow one mouthful on any other condition. No other nurse and no other tune but "Nancy Lee" will do—neither the "Star-Spangled Banner" nor "The Babies on our Block." Whether it is Nancy all by her melodious self, or the beautiful picture of her in a sailor's suit on the lid of the box, or the two and the nurse and the dinner together, that serve to soothe her, is a question of some concern to the island, since Nancy and the nurse have shown signs of giving out together.
Three of the six sheep that were bought for the ridiculously low price of eighty-nine cents apiece, the lambs being thrown in as makeweight, were grazing on the mixed-measles lawn over on the east shore of the island, with a fairy in evening dress eying them rather disdainfully in the grasp of tearful Annie Cullum. Annie is a foundling from the asylum temporarily sojourning here. The measles and the scarlet fever were the only things that ever took kindly to her in her little life. They tackled her both at once, and poor Annie, after a six or eight weeks' tussle with them, has just about enough spunk left to cry when anybody looks at her.
Three woolly sheep and a fairy all at once have robbed her of all hope, and in the midst of it all she weeps as if her heart would break. Even when the nurse pulls one of the unresisting muttonheads, and it emits a loud "Baa-a," she stops only just for a second or two and then wails again. The sheep look rather surprised, as they have a right to. They have come to be little Annie's steady company, hers and her fellow-sufferers' in the mixed-measles ward. The triangular lawn upon which they are browsing is theirs to gambol on when the sun shines, but cross the walk that borders it they never can, any more than the babies with whom they play. Sumptuary law rules the island they are on. Habeas corpus and the constitution stop short of the ferry. Even Comstock's authority does not cross it: the one exception to the rule that dolls and sheep and babies shall not visit from ward to ward is in favor of the rubber dolls, and the etiquette of the island requires that they shall lay off their woollen jackets and go calling just as the factory turned them out, without a stitch or shred of any kind on.
As for the rest, they are assigned, babies, nurses, sheep, rattles, and railroad trains, to their separate measles, scarlet fever, and diphtheria lawns or wards, and there must be content to stay. A sheep may be transferred from the scarlet-fever ward with its patron to the mixed-measles or diphtheria, when symptoms of either of these diseases appear, as they often do; but it cannot then go back again, lest it carry the seeds of the new contagion to its old friends.
Even the fairies are put under the ban of suspicion by such evil associations, and, once they have crossed the line, are not allowed to go back to corrupt the good manners of the babies with only one complaint.
Pauline Meyer, the bigger of the two girls on the mixed-measles stoop,—the other is friendless Annie,—has just enough strength to laugh when her sheep's head is pulled. She has been on the limits of one ward after another these four months, and has had everything, short of typhus fever and smallpox, that the island affords.
It is a marvel that there is one laugh left in her whole little shrunken body after it all; but there is, and the grin on her face reaches almost from ear to ear, as she clasps the biggest fairy in an arm very little stouter than a boy's bean blower, and hears the lamb bleat. Why, that one smile on that ghastly face would be thought worth his fifty dollars by the children's friend, could he see it. Pauline is the child of Swedish emigrants. She and Annie will not fight over their lambs and their dolls, not for many weeks. They can't. They can't even stand up.
One of the railroad trains, drawn by a glorious tin engine, with the name "Union" painted on the cab, is making across the stoop for the little boy with the whooping-cough in the next building. But it won't get there; it is quarantined. But it will have plenty of exercise. Little hands are itching to get hold of it in one of the cribs inside. There are thirty-six sick children on the island just now, about half of them boys, who will find plenty of use for the balls and things as soon as they get about. How those base-balls are to be kept within bounds is a hopeless mystery the doctors are puzzling over.
Even if nines are organized in every ward, as has been suggested, it is hard to see how they can be allowed to play each other, as they would want to, of course, as soon as they could toddle about. It would be something, though, a smallpox nine pitted against the scarlets or the measles, with an umpire from the mixed ward!
The old woman that lived in a shoe, being of rubber, is a privileged character, and is away on a call in the female scarlet, says the nurse. It is a good thing that she was made that way, for she is very popular. So are Mother Goose and her ten companion rubber toys. The bear and the man that strike alternately a wooden anvil with a ditto hammer are scarcely less exciting to the infantile mind; but, being of wood, they are steady boarders permanently attached each to his ward. The dominos fell to the lot of the male scarlets. That ward has half a dozen grown men in it at present, and they have never once lost sight of the little black blocks since they first saw them.
The doctor reports that they are getting better just as fast as they can since they took to playing dominos. If there is any hint in this to the profession at large, they are welcome to it, along with humanity.
A little girl with a rubber doll in a red woollen jacket—a combination to make the perspiration run right off one with the humidity at 98—looks wistfully down from the second-story balcony of the smallpox pavilion, as the doctor goes past with the last sheep tucked under his arm.
But though it baa-a ever so loudly, it is not for her. It is bound for the white tent on the shore, shunned even here, where sits a solitary watcher gazing wistfully all day toward the city that has passed out of his life. Perchance it may bring to him a message from the far-away home where the birds sang for him, and the waves and the flowers spoke to him, and "Unclean" had not been written against his name. Of all on the Pest Island he alone is hopeless. He is a leper, and his sentence is that of a living death in a strange land.
NIGGER MARTHA'S WAKE
A woman with face all seared and blotched by something that had burned through the skin sat propped up in the doorway of a Bowery restaurant at four o'clock in the morning, senseless, apparently dying. A policeman stood by, looking anxiously up the street and consulting his watch. At intervals he shook her to make sure she was not dead. The drift of the Bowery that was borne that way eddied about, intent upon what was going on. A dumpy little man edged through the crowd and peered into the woman's face.
"Phew!" he said, "it's Nigger Martha! What is gettin' into the girls on the Bowery I don't know. Remember my Maggie? She was her chum."
This to the watchman on the block. The watchman remembered. He knows everything that goes on in the Bowery. Maggie was the wayward daughter of a decent laundress, and killed herself by drinking carbolic acid less than a month before. She had wearied of the Bowery. Nigger Martha was her one friend. And now she had followed her example.
She was drunk when she did it. It is in their cups that a glimpse of the life they traded away for the street comes sometimes to these wretches, with remorse not to be borne.
It came so to Nigger Martha. Ten minutes before, she had been sitting with two boon companions in the oyster saloon next door, discussing their night's catch. Elsie "Specs" was one of the two; the other was known to the street simply as Mame. Elsie wore glasses, a thing unusual enough in the Bowery to deserve recognition. From their presence Martha rose suddenly, to pull a vial from her pocket. Mame saw it, and, knowing what it meant in the heavy humor that was upon Nigger Martha, she struck it from her hand with a pepper-box. It fell, but was not broken. The woman picked it up, and staggering out, swallowed its contents upon the sidewalk—that is, as much as went into her mouth. Much went over her face, burning it. She fell shrieking.
Then came the crowd. The Bowery never sleeps. The policeman on the beat set her in the doorway and sent a hurry call for an ambulance. It came at last, and Nigger Martha was taken to the hospital.
As Mame told it, so it was recorded on the police blotter, with the addition that she was anywhere from forty to fifty years old. That was the strange part of it. It is not often that any one lasts out a generation in the Bowery. Nigger Martha did. Her beginning was way back in the palmy days of Billy McGlory and Owney Geoghegan. Her first remembered appearance was on the occasion of the mock wake they got up at Geoghegan's for Police Captain Foley when he was broken. That was in the days when dive-keepers made and broke police captains, and made no secret of it. Billy McGlory did not. Ever since, Martha was on the street.
In time she picked up Maggie Mooney, and they got to be chummy. The friendships of the Bowery by night may not be of a very exalted type, but when death breaks them it leaves nothing to the survivor. That is the reason suicides there happen in pairs. The story of Tilly Lorrison and Tricksy came from the Tenderloin not long ago. This one of Maggie Mooney and Nigger Martha was theirs over again.
In each case it was the younger, the one nearest the life that was forever past, who took the step first, in despair. The other followed. To her it was the last link with something that had long ceased to be anything but a dream, which was broken. But without the dream life was unbearable, in the Tenderloin and on the Bowery.
The newsboys were crying their night extras when Undertaker Reardon's wagon jogged across the Bowery with Nigger Martha's body in it. She had given the doctors the slip, as she had the policeman many a time. A friend of hers, an Italian in The Bend, had hired the undertaker to "do it proper," and Nigger Martha was to have a funeral.
All the Bowery came to the wake. The all-nighters from Chatham Square to Bleecker Street trooped up to the top-floor flat in the Forsyth Street tenement where Nigger Martha was laid out. There they sat around, saying little and drinking much. It was not a cheery crowd.
The Bowery by night is not cheerful in the presence of The Mystery. Its one effort is to get away from it, to forget—the thing it can never do. When out of its sight it carouses boisterously, as children sing and shout in the dark to persuade themselves that they are not afraid. And some who hear think it happy.
Sheeny Rose was the master of ceremonies and kept the door. This for a purpose. In life Nigger Martha had one enemy whom she hated—cock-eyed Grace. Like all of her kind, Nigger Martha was superstitious. Grace's evil eye ever brought her bad luck when she crossed her path, and she shunned her as the pestilence. When inadvertently she came upon her, she turned as she passed and spat twice over her left shoulder. And Grace, with white malice in her wicked face, spurned her.
"I don't want," Nigger Martha had said one night in the hearing of Sheeny Rose—"I don't want that cock-eyed thing to look at my body when I am dead. She'll give me hard luck in the grave yet."
And Sheeny Rose was there to see that cock-eyed Grace didn't come to the wake.
She did come. She labored up the long stairs, and knocked, with no one will ever know what purpose in her heart. If it was a last glimmer of good, of forgiveness, it was promptly squelched. It was Sheeny Rose who opened the door.
"You can't come in here," she said curtly. "You know she hated you. She didn't want you to look at her stiff."
Cock-eyed Grace's face grew set with anger. Her curses were heard within. She threatened fight, but dropped it.
"All right," she said as she went down. "I'll fix you, Sheeny Rose!"
It was in the exact spot where Nigger Martha had sat and died that Grace met her enemy the night after the funeral. Lizzie La Blanche, the Marine's girl, was there; Elsie Specs, Little Mame, and Jack the Dog, toughest of all the girls, who for that reason had earned the name of "Mayor of the Bowery." She brooked no rivals. They were all within reach when the two enemies met under the arc light.
Cock-eyed Grace sounded the challenge.
"Now, you little Sheeny Rose," she said, "I'm goin' to do ye fer shuttin' of me out o' Nigger Martha's wake."
With that out came her hatpin, and she made a lunge at Sheeny Rose. The other was on her guard. Hatpin in hand, she parried the thrust and lunged back. In a moment the girls had made a ring about the two, shutting them out of sight. Within it the desperate women thrust and parried, backed and squared off, leaping like tigers when they saw an opening. Their hats had fallen off, their hair was down, and eager hate glittered in their eyes. It was a battle for life; for there is no dagger more deadly than the hatpin these women carry, chiefly as a weapon of defence in the hour of need.
They were evenly matched. Sheeny Rose made up in superior suppleness of limb for the pent-up malice of the other. Grace aimed her thrusts at her opponent's face. She tried to reach her eye. Once the sharp steel just pricked Sheeny Rose's cheek and drew blood. In the next turn Rose's hatpin passed within a quarter-inch of Grace's jugular.
But the blow nearly threw her off her feet, and she was at her enemy's mercy. With an evil oath the fiend thrust full at her face just as the policeman, who had come through the crowd unobserved, so intent was it upon the fight, knocked the steel from her hand.
At midnight two dishevelled hags with faces flattened against the bars of adjoining cells in the police station were hurling sidelong curses at each other and at the maddened doorman. Nigger Martha's wake had received its appropriate and foreordained ending.
WHAT THE CHRISTMAS SUN SAW IN THE TENEMENTS
The December sun shone clear and cold upon the city. It shone upon rich and poor alike. It shone into the homes of the wealthy on the avenues and in the up-town streets, and into courts and alleys hedged in by towering tenements down town. It shone upon throngs of busy holiday shoppers that went out and in at the big stores, carrying bundles big and small, all alike filled with Christmas cheer and kindly messages from Santa Claus.
It shone down so gayly and altogether cheerily there, that wraps and overcoats were unbuttoned for the north wind to toy with. "My, isn't it a nice day?" said one young lady in a fur shoulder cape to a friend, pausing to kiss and compare lists of Christmas gifts.
"Most too hot," was the reply, and the friends passed on. There was warmth within and without. Life was very pleasant under the Christmas sun up on the avenue.
Down in Cherry Street the rays of the sun climbed over a row of tall tenements with an effort that seemed to exhaust all the life that was in them, and fell into a dirty block, half choked with trucks, with ash barrels and rubbish of all sorts, among which the dust was whirled in clouds upon fitful, shivering blasts that searched every nook and cranny of the big barracks. They fell upon a little girl, barefooted and in rags, who struggled out of an alley with a broken pitcher in her grimy fist, against the wind that set down the narrow slit like the draught through a big factory chimney. Just at the mouth of the alley it took her with a sudden whirl, a cyclone of dust and drifting ashes, tossed her fairly off her feet, tore from her grip the threadbare shawl she clutched at her throat, and set her down at the saloon door breathless and half smothered. She had just time to dodge through the storm-doors before another whirlwind swept whistling down the street.
"My, but isn't it cold?" she said, as she shook the dust out of her shawl and set the pitcher down on the bar. "Gimme a pint," laying down a few pennies that had been wrapped in a corner of the shawl, "and mamma says make it good and full."
"All'us the way with youse kids—want a barrel when yees pays fer a pint," growled the bartender. "There, run along, and don't ye hang around that stove no more. We ain't a steam-heatin' the block fer nothin'."
The little girl clutched her shawl and the pitcher, and slipped out into the street where the wind lay in ambush and promptly bore down on her in pillars of whirling dust as soon as she appeared. But the sun that pitied her bare feet and little frozen hands played a trick on old Boreas—it showed her a way between the pillars, and only just her skirt was caught by one and whirled over her head as she dodged into her alley. It peeped after her halfway down its dark depths, where it seemed colder even than in the bleak street, but there it had to leave her.
It did not see her dive through the doorless opening into a hall where no sun-ray had ever entered. It could not have found its way in there had it tried. But up the narrow, squeaking stairs the girl with the pitcher was climbing. Up one flight of stairs, over a knot of children, half babies, pitching pennies on the landing, over wash-tubs and bedsteads that encumbered the next—house-cleaning going on in that "flat"; that is to say, the surplus of bugs was being turned out with petroleum and a feather—up still another, past a half-open door through which came the noise of brawling and curses. She dodged and quickened her step a little until she stood panting before a door on the fourth landing that opened readily as she pushed it with her bare foot.
A room almost devoid of stick or rag one might dignify with the name of furniture. Two chairs, one with a broken back, the other on three legs, beside a rickety table that stood upright only by leaning against the wall. On the unwashed floor a heap of straw covered with dirty bedtick for a bed; a foul-smelling slop-pail in the middle of the room; a crazy stove, and back of it a door or gap opening upon darkness. There was something in there, but what it was could only be surmised from a heavy snore that rose and fell regularly. It was the bedroom of the apartment, windowless, airless, and sunless, but rented at a price a millionnaire would denounce as robbery.
"That you, Liza?" said a voice that discovered a woman bending over the stove. "Run 'n' get the childer. Dinner's ready."
The winter sun glancing down the wall of the opposite tenement, with a hopeless effort to cheer the back yard, might have peeped through the one window of the room in Mrs. McGroarty's "flat," had that window not been coated with the dust of ages, and discovered that dinner party in action. It might have found a score like it in the alley. Four unkempt children, copies each in his or her way of Liza and their mother, Mrs. McGroarty, who "did washing" for a living. A meat bone, a "cut" from the butcher's at four cents a pound, green pickles, stale bread and beer. Beer for the four, a sup all round, the baby included. Why not? It was the one relish the searching ray would have found there. Potatoes were there, too—potatoes and meat! Say not the poor in the tenements are starving. In New York only those starve who cannot get work and have not the courage to beg. Fifty thousand always out of a job, say those who pretend to know. A round half-million asking and getting charity in eight years, say the statisticians of the Charity Organization. Any one can go round and see for himself that no one need starve in New York.
From across the yard the sunbeam, as it crept up the wall, fell slantingly through the attic window whence issued the sound of hammer-blows. A man with a hard face stood in its light, driving nails into the lid of a soap box that was partly filled with straw. Something else was there; as he shifted the lid that didn't fit, the glimpse of sunshine fell across it; it was a dead child, a little baby in a white slip, bedded in straw in a soap box for a coffin. The man was hammering down the lid to take it to the Potter's Field. At the bed knelt the mother, dry-eyed, delirious from starvation that had killed her child. Five hungry, frightened children cowered in the corner, hardly daring to whisper as they looked from the father to the mother in terror.
There was a knock on the door that was drowned once, twice, in the noise of the hammer on the little coffin. Then it was opened gently, and a young woman came in with a basket. A little silver cross shone upon her breast. She went to the poor mother, and, putting her hand soothingly on her head, knelt by her with gentle and loving words. The half-crazed woman listened with averted face, then suddenly burst into tears and hid her throbbing head in the other's lap.
The man stopped hammering and stared fixedly upon the two; the children gathered around with devouring looks as the visitor took from her basket bread, meat, and tea. Just then, with a parting wistful look into the bare attic room, the sun-ray slipped away, lingered for a moment about the coping outside, and fled over the housetops.
As it sped on its winter-day journey, did it shine into any cabin in an Irish bog more desolate than these Cherry Street "homes"? An army of thousands, whose one bright and wholesome memory, only tradition of home, is that poverty-stricken cabin in the desolate bog, are herded in such barracks to-day in New York. Potatoes they have; yes, and meat at four cents—even seven. Beer for a relish—never without beer. But home? The home that was home, even in a bog, with the love of it that has made Ireland immortal and a tower of strength in the midst of her suffering—what of that? There are no homes in New York's poor tenements.
Down the crooked path of the Mulberry Street Bend the sunlight slanted into the heart of New York's Italy. It shone upon bandannas and yellow neckerchiefs; upon swarthy faces and corduroy breeches; upon black-haired girls—mothers at thirteen; upon hosts of bow-legged children rolling in the dirt; upon pedlers' carts and rag-pickers staggering under burdens that threatened to crush them at every step. Shone upon unnumbered Pasquales dwelling, working, idling, and gambling there. Shone upon the filthiest and foulest of New York's tenements, upon Bandit's Roost, upon Bottle Alley, upon the hidden byways that lead to the tramps' burrows. Shone upon the scene of annual infant slaughter. Shone into the foul core of New York's slums that was at last to go to the realm of bad memories because civilized man might not look upon it and live without blushing.
It glanced past the rag-shop in the cellar, whence welled up stenches to poison the town, into an apartment three flights up that held two women, one young, the other old and bent. The young one had a baby at her breast. She was rocking it tenderly in her arms, singing in the soft Italian tongue a lullaby, while the old granny listened eagerly, her elbows on her knees, and a stumpy clay pipe, blackened with age, between her teeth. Her eyes were set on the wall, on which the musty paper hung in tatters, fit frame for the wretched, poverty-stricken room, but they saw neither poverty nor want; her aged limbs felt not the cold draught from without, in which they shivered; she looked far over the seas to sunny Italy, whose music was in her ears.
"O dolce Napoli," she mumbled between her toothless jaws, "O suol beato—"
The song ended in a burst of passionate grief. The old granny and the baby woke up at once. They were not in sunny Italy; not under southern, cloudless skies. They were in "The Bend," in Mulberry Street, and the wintry wind rattled the door as if it would say, in the language of their new home, the land of the free: "Less music! More work! Root, hog, or die!"
Around the corner the sunbeam danced with the wind into Mott Street, lifted the blouse of a Chinaman and made it play tag with his pigtail. It used him so roughly that he was glad to skip from it down a cellar-way that gave out fumes of opium strong enough to scare even the north wind from its purpose. The soles of his felt shoes showed as he disappeared down the ladder that passed for cellar steps. Down there, where daylight never came, a group of yellow, almond-eyed men were bending over a table playing fan-tan. Their very souls were in the game, every faculty of the mind bent on the issue and the stake. The one blouse that was indifferent to what went on was stretched on a mat in a corner. One end of a clumsy pipe was in his mouth, the other held over a little spirit-lamp on the divan on which he lay. Something fluttered in the flame with a pungent, unpleasant smell. The smoker took a long draught, inhaling the white smoke, then sank back on his couch in senseless content.
Upstairs tiptoed the noiseless felt shoes, bent on some house errand, to the "household" floors above, where young white girls from the tenements of The Bend and the East Side live in slavery worse, if not more galling, than any of the galley with ball and chain—the slavery of the pipe. Four, eight, sixteen, twenty odd such "homes" in this tenement, disgracing the very name of home and family, for marriage and troth are not in the bargain.
In one room, between the half-drawn curtains of which the sunbeam works its way in, three girls are lying on as many bunks, smoking all. They are very young, "under age," though each and every one would glibly swear in court to the satisfaction of the police that she is sixteen, and therefore free to make her own bad choice. Of these, one was brought up among the rugged hills of Maine; the other two are from the tenement crowds, hardly missed there. But their companion? She is twirling the sticky brown pill over the lamp, preparing to fill the bowl of her pipe with it. As she does so, the sunbeam dances across the bed, kisses the red spot on her cheek that betrays the secret her tyrant long has known,—though to her it is hidden yet,—that the pipe has claimed its victim and soon will pass it on to the Potter's Field.
"Nell," says one of her chums in the other bunk, something stirred within her by the flash, "Nell, did you hear from the old farm to home since you come here?"
Nell turns half around, with the toasting-stick in her hand, an ugly look on her wasted features, a vile oath on her lips.
"To hell with the old farm," she says, and putting the pipe to her mouth inhales it all, every bit, in one long breath, then falls back on her pillow in drunken stupor.
That is what the sun of a winter day saw and heard in Mott Street.
It had travelled far toward the west, searching many dark corners and vainly seeking entry to others; had gilded with equal impartiality the spires of five hundred churches and the tin cornices of thirty thousand tenements, with their million tenants and more; had smiled courage and cheer to patient mothers trying to make the most of life in the teeming crowds, that had too little sunshine by far; hope to toiling fathers striving early and late for bread to fill the many mouths clamoring to be fed.
The brief December day was far spent. Now its rays fell across the North River and lighted up the windows of the tenements in Hell's Kitchen and Poverty Gap. In the Gap especially they made a brave show; the windows of the crazy old frame-house under the big tree that sat back from the street looked as if they were made of beaten gold. But the glory did not cross the threshold. Within it was dark and dreary and cold. The room at the foot of the rickety, patched stairs was empty. The last tenant was beaten to death by her husband in his drunken fury. The sun's rays shunned the spot ever after, though it was long since it could have made out the red daub from the mould on the rotten floor.
Upstairs, in the cold attic, where the wind wailed mournfully through every open crack, a little girl sat sobbing as if her heart would break. She hugged an old doll to her breast. The paint was gone from its face; the yellow hair was in a tangle; its clothes hung in rags. But she only hugged it closer. It was her doll. They had been friends so long, shared hunger and hardship together, and now—
Her tears fell faster. One drop trembled upon the wan cheek of the doll. The last sunbeam shot athwart it and made it glisten like a priceless jewel. Its glory grew and filled the room. Gone were the black walls, the darkness, and the cold. There was warmth and light and joy. Merry voices and glad faces were all about. A flock of children danced with gleeful shouts about a great Christmas tree in the middle of the floor. Upon its branches hung drums and trumpets and toys, and countless candles gleamed like beautiful stars. Farthest up, at the very top, her doll, her very own, with arms outstretched, as if appealing to be taken down and hugged. She knew it, knew the mission-school that had seen her first and only real Christmas, knew the gentle face of her teacher, and the writing on the wall she had taught her to spell out: "In His name." His name, who, she had said, was all little children's friend. Was He also her dolly's friend, and would He know it among the strange people?
The light went out; the glory faded. The bare room, only colder and more cheerless than before, was left. The child shivered. Only that morning the doctor had told her mother that she must have medicine and food and warmth, or she must go to the great hospital where papa had gone before, when their money was all spent. Sorrow and want had laid the mother upon the bed he had barely left. Every stick of furniture, every stitch of clothing on which money could be borrowed, had gone to the pawnbroker. Last of all, she had carried mamma's wedding-ring to pay the druggist. Now there was no more left, and they had nothing to eat. In a little while mamma would wake up, hungry.
The little girl smothered a last sob and rose quickly. She wrapped the doll in a threadbare shawl as well as she could, tiptoed to the door, and listened a moment to the feeble breathing of the sick mother within. Then she went out, shutting the door softly behind her, lest she wake her.
Up the street she went, the way she knew so well, one block and a turn round the saloon corner, the sunset glow kissing the track of her bare feet in the snow as she went, to a door that rang a noisy bell as she opened it and went in. A musty smell filled the close room. Packages, great and small, lay piled high on shelves behind the worn counter. A slovenly woman was haggling with the pawnbroker about the money for a skirt she had brought to pledge.
"Not a cent more than a quarter," he said, contemptuously, tossing the garment aside. "It's half worn out it is, dragging it back and forth over the counter these six months. Take it or leave it. Hallo! What have we here? Little Finnegan, eh? Your mother not dead yet? It's in the poorhouse ye will be if she lasts much longer. What the—"
He had taken the package from the trembling child's hand—the precious doll—and unrolled the shawl. A moment he stood staring in dumb amazement at its contents. Then he caught it up and flung it with an angry oath upon the floor, where it was shivered against the coal-box.
"Get out o' here, ye Finnegan brat," he shouted; "I'll tache ye to come a-guyin' o' me. I'll—"
The door closed with a bang upon the frightened child, alone in the cold night. The sun saw not its home-coming. It had hidden behind the night clouds, weary of the sight of man and his cruelty.
Evening had worn into night. The busy city slept. Down by the wharves, now deserted, a poor boy sat on the bulwark, hungry, foot-sore, and shivering with cold. He sat thinking of friends and home, thousands of miles away over the sea, whom he had left six months before to go among strangers. He had been alone ever since, but never more so than that night. His money gone, no work to be found, he had slept in the streets for nights. That day he had eaten nothing; he would rather die than beg, and one of the two he must do soon.
There was the dark river rushing at his feet; the swirl of the unseen waters whispered to him of rest and peace he had not known since—it was so cold—and who was there to care, he thought bitterly. No one would ever know. He moved a little nearer the edge, and listened more intently.
A low whine fell on his ear, and a cold, wet face was pressed against his. A little crippled dog that had been crouching silently beside him nestled in his lap. He had picked it up in the street, as forlorn and friendless as himself, and it had stayed by him. Its touch recalled him to himself. He got up hastily, and, taking the dog in his arms, went to the police station near by, and asked for shelter. It was the first time he had accepted even such charity, and as he lay down on his rough plank he hugged a little gold locket he wore around his neck, the last link with better days, and thought with a hard sob of home. In the middle of the night he awoke with a start. The locket was gone. One of the tramps who slept with him had stolen it. With bitter tears he went up and complained to the Sergeant at the desk, and the Sergeant ordered him to be kicked out into the street as a liar, if not a thief. How should a tramp boy have come honestly by a gold locket? The doorman put him out as he was bidden, and when the little dog showed its teeth, a policeman seized it and clubbed it to death on the step.
* * * * *
Far from the slumbering city the rising moon shines over a wide expanse of glistening water. It silvers the snow upon a barren heath between two shores, and shortens with each passing minute the shadows of countless headstones that bear no names, only numbers. The breakers that beat against the bluff wake not those who sleep there. In the deep trenches they lie, shoulder to shoulder, an army of brothers, homeless in life, but here at rest and at peace. A great cross stands upon the lonely shore. The moon sheds its rays upon it in silent benediction and floods the garden of the unknown, unmourned dead with its soft light. Out on the Sound the fishermen see it flashing white against the starlit sky, and bare their heads reverently as their boats speed by, borne upon the wings of the west wind.
MIDWINTER IN NEW YORK
The very earliest impression I received of America's metropolis was through a print in my child's picture-book that was entitled "Winter in New York." It showed a sleighing party, or half a dozen such, muffled to the ears in furs, and racing with grim determination for some place or another that lay beyond the page, wrapped in the mystery which so tickles the childish fancy. For it was clear to me that it was not accident that they were all going the same way. There was evidently some prize away off there in the waste of snow that beckoned them on. The text gave me no clew to what it was. It only confirmed the impression, which was strengthened by the introduction of a half-naked savage who shivered most wofully in the foreground, that New York was somewhere within the arctic circle and a perfect paradise for a healthy boy, who takes to snow as naturally as a duck takes to water. I do not know how the discovery that they were probably making for Gabe Case's and his bottle of champagne, which always awaited the first sleigh on the road, would have struck me in those days. Most likely as a grievous disappointment; for my fancy, busy ever with Uncas and Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo, had certainly a buffalo hunt, or an ambush, or, at the very least, a big fire, ready at the end of the road. But such is life. Its most cherished hopes have to be surrendered one by one to the prosy facts of every-day existence. I recall distinctly how it cut me to the heart when I first walked up Broadway, with an immense navy pistol strapped around my waist, to find it a paved street, actually paved, with no buffaloes in sight and not a red man or a beaver hut.
However, life has its compensations also. At fifty I am as willing to surrender the arctic circle as I was hopeful of it at ten, with the price of coal in the chronic plight of my little boy when he has a troublesome hitch in his trousers: "O dear me! my pants hang up and don't hang down." And Gabe Case's is a most welcome exchange to me for the ambush, since I have left out the pistol and the rest of the armament. I listen to the stories of the oldest inhabitant, of the winters when "the snow lay to the second-story windows in the Bowery," with the fervent wish that they may never come back, and secretly gloat over his wail that the seasons have changed and are not what they were. The man who exuberantly proclaims that New York is getting to have the finest winter-resort climate in the world is my friend, and I do not care if I never see another snowball. Alas, yes! though Deerslayer and I are still on the old terms, I fear the evidence is that I am growing old.
In the midst of the rejoicing comes old Boreas, as last winter, for instance, and blows down my house of cards. Just when we thought ourselves safe in referring to the great blizzard as a monstrous, unheard-of thing, and were dwelling securely in the memory of how we gathered violets in the woods out in Queens and killed mosquitoes in the house in Christmas week, comes grim winter and locks the rivers and buries us up to the neck in snow, before the Thanksgiving dinner is cold. Then the seasons when Gabe's much-coveted bottle stood unclaimed on the shelf in its bravery of fine ribbons till far into the New Year, and was won then literally "by a scratch" on a road hardly downy with white, seem like a tale that is told, and we realize that latitude does not unaided make temperature. It is only in exceptional winters, after all, that we class for a brief spell with Naples. Greenland and the polar stream are never long in asserting their claim and Santa Claus's to unchecked progress to our hearths.
And now, when one comes to think of it, who would say them nay for the sake of a ton of coal, or twenty? If one grows old, he is still young in his children. There is the smallest tot at this very moment sliding under my window with shrieks of delight, in the first fall of the season, though the November election is barely a week gone, and snowballing the hired girl in quite the fashion of the good old days, with the grocer's clerk stamping his feet at the back gate and roaring out his enjoyment at her plight in a key only Jack Frost has in keeping. A hundred thousand pairs of boys' eyes are stealing anxious glances toward school windows to-day, lest the storm cease before they are let out, and scant attention is paid to the morning's lessons, I will warrant. Who would exchange the bob-sled and the slide and the hurricane delights of coasting for eternal summer and magnolias in January? Not I, for one—not yet. Human nature is, after all, more robust than it seems at the study fire. I never declared in the board of deacons why I stood up so stoutly for the minister we called that winter to our little church,—with deacons discretion is sometimes quite the best part of valor,—but I am not ashamed of it. It was the night when we were going home, and neighbor Connery gave us a ride on his new bob down that splendid hill,—the whole board, men and women,—that I judged him for what he really was—that resolute leg out behind that kept us on our course as straight as a die, rounding every log and reef with the skill of a river pilot, never flinching once. It was the leg that did it; but it was, as I thought, an index to the whole man.
Discomfort and suffering are usually the ideas associated with deep winter in a great city like New York, and there is a deal of it—discomfort to us all and suffering among the poor. The mere statement that the Street-Cleaning Department last winter carted away and dumped into the river 1,679,087 cubic yards of snow at thirty cents a yard, and was then hotly blamed for leaving us in the slush, fairly measures the one and is enough to set the taxpayer to thinking. The suffering in the tenements of the poor is as real, but even their black cloud is not without its silver lining. It calls out among those who have much as tender a charity as is ever alive among those who have little or nothing and who know one another for brothers without needing the reminder of a severe cold snap or a big storm to tell them of it. More money was poured into the coffers of the charitable societies in the last big cold snap than they could use for emergency relief; and the reckless advertising in sensational newspapers of the starvation that was said to be abroad called forth an emphatic protest from representatives of the social settlements and of the Charity Organization Society, who were in immediate touch with the poor. The old question whether a heavy fall of snow does not more than make up to the poor man the suffering it causes received a wide discussion at the time, but in the end was left open as always. The simple truth is that it brings its own relief to those who are always just on the verge. It sets them to work, and the charity visitor sees the effect in wages coming in, even if only for a brief season. The far greater loss which it causes, and which the visitor does not see, is to those who are regularly employed, and with whom she has therefore no concern, in suspending all other kinds of outdoor work than snow-shovelling.
Take it all together, and I do not believe even an unusual spell of winter carries in its trail in New York such hopeless martyrdom to the poor as in Old World cities, London for instance. There is something in the clear skies and bracing air of our city that keeps the spirits up to the successful defiance of anything short of actual hunger. There abides with me from days and nights of poking about in dark London alleys an impression of black and sooty rooms, and discouraged, red-eyed women blowing ever upon smouldering fires, that is disheartening beyond anything I ever encountered in the dreariest tenements here. Outside, the streets lay buried in fog and slush that brought no relief to the feelings.
Misery enough I have seen in New York's tenements; but deep as the shadows are in the winter picture of it, it has no such darkness as that. The newsboys and the sandwich-men warming themselves upon the cellar gratings in Twenty-third Street and elsewhere have oftener than not a ready joke to crack with the passer-by, or a little jig step to relieve their feelings and restore the circulation. The very tramp who hangs by his arms on the window-bars of the power-house at Houston Street and Broadway indulges in safe repartee with the engineer down in the depths, and chuckles at being more than a match for him. Down there it is always July, rage the storm king ever so boisterously up on the level. The windows on the Mercer Street corner of the building are always open—or else there are no windows. The spaces between the bars admit a man's arm very handily, and as a result there are always on cold nights as many hands pointing downward at the engineer and his boilers as there are openings in the iron fence. The tramps sleep, so suspended the night long, toasting themselves alternately on front and back.