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You never would guess in visiting Cathedral Court, with its people's hall and its public baths, its clean, paved street and general air of smug propriety, that it harbors a notorious past. But those who knew it by its maiden name, before it was married to respectability, recall Calvary Alley as a region of swarming tenements, stale beer dives, and frequent police raids. The sole remaining trace of those unregenerate days is the print of a child's foot in the concrete walk just where it leaves the court and turns into the cathedral yard.
All the tired feet that once plodded home from factory and foundry, all the unsteady feet that staggered in from saloon and dance-hall, all the fleeing feet that sought a hiding place, have long since passed away and left no record of their passing. Only that one small footprint, with its perfect outline, still pauses on its way out of the alley into the great world beyond.
At the time Nance Molloy stepped into that soft concrete and thus set in motion the series of events that was to influence her future career, she had never been told that her inalienable rights were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nevertheless she had claimed them intuitively. When at the age of one she had crawled out of the soap-box that served as a cradle, and had eaten half a box of stove polish, she was acting in strict accord with the Constitution.
By the time she reached the sophisticated age of eleven her ideals had changed, but her principles remained firm. She did not stoop to beg for her rights, but struck out for them boldly with her small bare fists. She was a glorious survival of that primitive Kentucky type that stood side by side with man in the early battles and fought valiantly for herself.
On the hot August day upon which she began to make history, she stood in the gutter amid a crowd of yelling boys, her feet far apart, her hands full of mud, waiting tensely to chastise the next sleek head that dared show itself above the cathedral fence. She wore a boy's shirt and a ragged brown skirt that flapped about her sturdy bare legs. Her matted hair was bound in two disheveled braids around her head and secured with a piece of shoe-string. Her dirty round face was lighted up by a pair of dancing blue eyes, in which just now blazed the unholy light of conflict.
The feud between the Calvary Micks and the choir boys was an ancient one, carried on from one generation to another and gaining prestige with age. It was apt to break out on Saturday afternoons, after rehearsal, when the choirmaster had taken his departure. Frequently the disturbance amounted to no more than taunts and jeers on one side and threats and recriminations on the other, but the atmosphere that it created was of that electrical nature that might at any moment develop a storm.
Nance Molloy, at the beginning of the present controversy, had been actively engaged in civil warfare in which the feminine element of the alley was pursuing a defensive policy against the marauding masculine. But at the first indication of an outside enemy, the herd instinct manifested itself, and she allied herself with prompt and passionate loyalty to the cause of the Calvary Micks.
The present argument was raging over the possession of a spade that had been left in the alley by the workmen who were laying a concrete pavement into the cathedral yard.
"Aw, leave 'em have it!" urged a philosophical alleyite from the top of a barrel. "Them ole avenoo kids ain't nothin'!--We could lick daylight outen 'em if we wanted to."
"Ye-e-e-s you could!" came in a chorus of jeers from the fence top, and a brown-eyed youth in a white-frilled shirt, with a blue Windsor tie knotted under his sailor collar, added imperiously, "You get too fresh down there, and I'll call the janitor!"
This gross breach of military etiquette evoked a retort from Nance that was too inelegant to chronicle.
"Tomboy! tomboy!" jeered the brown-eyed youth from above. "Why don't you borrow some girls' clothes?"
"All right, Sissy," said Nance, "lend me yours."
The Micks shrieked their approval, while Nance rolled a mud ball and, with the deadly aim of a sharpshooter, let it fly straight at the white-frilled bosom of her tormentor.
"Soak it to her, Mac," yelled the boy next to him, "the kid's got no business butting in! Make her get out of the way!"
"Go on and make me!" implored Nance.
"I will if you don't stand back," threatened the boy called Mac.
Nance promptly stepped up to the alley gate and wiggled her fingers in a way peculiarly provocative to a juvenile enemy.
"Poor white trash!" he jeered. "You stay where you belong! Don't you step on our concrete!"
"Will if I want to. It's my foot. I'll put it where I like."
"Bet you don't. You're afraid to."
"I ain't either."
"Well, do it then. I dare you! Anybody that would take a--"
In a second Nance had thrust her leg as far as possible between the boards that warned the public to keep out, and had planted a small alien foot firmly in the center of the soft cement.
This audacious act was the signal for instant battle. With yells of indignation the choir boys hurled themselves from the fence, and descended upon their foes. Mud gave place to rocks, sticks clashed, the air resounded with war cries. Ash barrels were overturned, straying cats made flying leaps for safety, heads appeared at doorways and windows, and frantic mothers made futile efforts to quell the riot.
Thus began the greatest fight ever enjoyed in Calvary Alley. It went down in neighborhood annals as the decisive clash between the classes, in which the despised swells "was learnt to know their places onct an' fer all!" For ten minutes it raged with unabated fury, then when the tide of battle began to set unmistakably in favor of the alley, parental authority waned and threats changed to cheers. Old and young united in the conviction that the Monroe Doctrine must be maintained at any cost!
In and out of the subsiding pandemonium darted Nance Molloy, covered with mud from the shoestring on her hair to the rag about her toe, giving and taking blows with the best, and emitting yells of frenzied victory over every vanquished foe. Suddenly her transports were checked by a disturbing sight. At the end of the alley, locked in mortal combat, she beheld her arch-enemy, he of the brown eyes and the frilled shirt, whom the boys called Mac, sitting astride the hitherto invincible Dan Lewis, the former philosopher of the ash barrel and one of the acknowledged leaders of the Calvary Micks.
It was a moment of intense chagrin for Nance, untempered by the fact that Dan's adversary was much the bigger boy. Up to this time, the whole affair had been a glorious game, but at the sight of the valiant Dan lying helpless on his back, his mouth bloody from the blows of the boy above him, the comedy changed suddenly to tragedy. With a swift charge from the rear, she flung herself upon the victor, clapping her mud-daubed hands about his eyes and dragging him backward with a force that sent them both rolling in the gutter.
Blind with fury, the boy scrambled to his feet, and, seizing a rock, hurled it with all his strength after the retreating Dan. The missile flew wide of its mark and, whizzing high over the fence, crashed through the great rose window that was the special pride of Calvary Cathedral.
The din of breaking glass, the simultaneous appearance of a cross-eyed policeman, and of Mason, the outraged janitor, together with the horrified realization of what had happened, brought the frenzied combatants to their senses. Amid a clamor of accusations and denials, the policeman seized upon two culprits and indicated a third.
"You let me go!" shrieked Mac. "My father'll make it all right! Tell him who I am, Mason! Make him let me go!"
But Mason was bent upon bringing all the criminals to justice.
"I'm going to have you all up before the juvenile court, rich and poor!" he declared excitedly. "You been deviling the life out of me long enough! If the vestry had 'a' listened at me and had you up before now, that window wouldn't be smashed. I told the bishop something was going to happen, and he says, 'The next time there's trouble, you find the leaders and swear out a warrant. Don't wait to ask anybody!'"
By this time every window in the tenement at the blind end of the alley had been converted into a proscenium box, and suggestions, advice, and incriminating evidence were being freely volunteered.
"Who started this here racket, anyhow?" asked the policeman, in the bored tone of one who is rehearsing an oft-repeated scene.
"I did," declared Nance Molloy, with something of the feminine gratification Helen of Troy must have felt when she "launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium."
"You Nance!" screamed a woman from a third-story window. "You know you never done no such a thing! I was settin' here an' seen ever'thing that happened; it was them there boys."
"So it was you, Dan Lewis, was it?" said the policeman, recognizing one of his panting victims, the one whose ragged shirt had been torn completely off, leaving his heaving chest and brown shoulders bare. "An' it ain't surprised, I am. Who is this other little dude?"
"None of your business!" cried Mac furiously, trying to wrench himself free. "I tell you my father will pay for the darned old window."
"Aisy there," said the policeman. "Does anybody know him?"
"It's Mr. Clarke's son, up at the bottle works," said Mason.
"You let me go," shrieked the now half-frantic boy. "My father 'll make you pay for this. You see if he don't!"
"None o' your guff," said the policeman. "I ain't wantin' to keep you now I got your name. Onny more out o' the boonch, Mr. Mason?"
Mason swept a gleaning eye over the group, and as he did so he spied the footprint, in the concrete.
"Who did that?" he demanded in a fresh burst of wrath.
Those choir boys who had not fled the scene gave prompt and incriminating testimony.
"No! she never!" shouted the woman from the third floor, now suspended half-way out of the window. "Nance Molloy was up here a-washin' dishes with me. Don't you listen at them pasty-faced cowards a-puttin' it off on a innercent little girl!"
But the innocent little girl had no idea of seeking refuge in her sex. Hers had been a glorious and determining part in the day's battle, and the distinction of having her name taken down with those of the great leaders was one not to be foregone.
"I did do it," she declared excitedly. "That there boy dared me to. Ketch me takin' a dare offen a avenoo kid!"
"What's your name, Sis?" asked the policeman.
"Where do you live?"
"Up there at Snawdor's. That there was Mis' Snawdor a-yellin' at me."
"Is she yer mother?"
"Nope. She's me step."
"And yer father?"
"He's me step too. I'm a two-step," she added with an impudent toss of the head to show her contempt for the servant of the law, a blue-coated, brass-buttoned interloper who swooped down on you from around corners, and reported you at all times and seasons.
By this time Mrs. Snawdor had gotten herself down the two flights of stairs, and was emerging from the door of the tenement, taking down her curl papers as she came. She was a plump, perspiring person who might have boasted good looks had it not been for two eye-teeth that completely dominated her facial landscape.
"You surely ain't fixin' to report her?" she asked ingratiatingly of Mason. "A little 'leven-year-ole orphin that never done no harm to nobody?"
"It's no use arguing," interrupted Mason firmly. "I'm going to file out a warrant against them three children if it's the last act of my mortal life. There ain't a boy in the alley that gives me any more trouble than that there little girl, a-throwin' mud over the fence and climbing round the coping and sneaking into the cathedral to look under the pews for nickels, if I so much as turn my back!"
"He wants the nickels hisself!" cried Nance shrilly, pushing her nose flat and pursing her lips in such a clever imitation of the irate janitor that the alley shrieked with joy.
"You limb o' Satan!" cried Mrs. Snawdor, making a futile pass at her. "It's a God's mericle you ain't been took up before this! And it's me as 'll have the brunt to bear, a-stoppin' my work to go to court, a-lying to yer good character, an' a-payin' the fine. It's a pity able-bodied men like policemens an' janitors can't be tendin' their own business 'stid of comin' interferin' with the family of a hard-workin' woman like me. If there's any justice in this world it ain't never flowed in my direction!"
And Mrs. Snawdor, half dragging, half pushing Nance, disappeared into the dark entrance of the tenement, breathing maledictions first against her charge, then against the tyranny of the law.
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