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And bring her rose-winged fancies, From shadowy shoals of dream To clothe her in the wistful hour When girlhood steals from bud to flower; Bring her the tunes of elfin dances, Bring her the faery Gleam.--BURKE.
Christmas fell on a Saturday and a payday, and this, together with Mr. Demry's party, accounts for the fact that the holiday spirit, which sometimes limps a trifle languidly past tenement doors, swaggered with unusual gaiety this year in Calvary Alley. You could hear it in the cathedral chimes which began at dawn, in the explosion of fire-crackers, in the bursts of noisy laughter from behind swinging doors. You could smell it in the whiffs of things frying, broiling, burning. You could feel it in the crisp air, in the crunch of the snow under your feet, and most of all you could see it in the happy, expectant faces of the children, who rushed in and out in a fever of excitement.
Early in the afternoon Nance Molloy, with a drab-colored shawl over her head and something tightly clasped in one bare, chapped fist, rushed forth on a mysterious mission. When she returned, she carried a pasteboard box hugged to her heart. The thought of tripping her fairy measure in worn-out shoes tied on with strings, had become so intolerable to her that she had bartered her holiday for a pair of white slippers. Mr. Lavinski had advanced the money, and she was to work six hours a day, instead of two, until she paid the money back.
But she was in no mood to reckon the cost, as she prepared for the evening festivities. So great was her energy and enthusiasm, that the contagion spread to the little Snawdors, each of whom submitted with unprecedented meekness to a "wash all over." Nance dressed herself last, wrapping her white feet and legs in paper to keep them clean until the great hour should arrive.
"Why, Nance Molloy! You look downright purty!" Mrs. Snawdor exclaimed, when she came up after assisting Mr. Demry with his refreshments. "I never would 'a' believed it!"
Nance laughed happily. The effect had been achieved by much experimenting before the little mirror over her soap box. The mirror had a wave in it which gave the beholder two noses, but Nance had kept her pink and white ideal steadily in mind, and the result was a golden curl over a bare shoulder. The curl would have been longer had not half of it remained in a burnt wisp around the poker.
But such petty catastrophes have no place in a heart overflowing with joy. Nance did not even try to keep her twinkling feet from dancing; she danced through the table-setting and through the dish-washing, and between times she pressed her face to the dirty pane of the front window to see if the hands on the big cathedral clock were getting any nearer to five.
"They're goin' to have Christmas doin's over to the cathedral, too," she cried excitedly. "The boards is off the new window, an' it's jus' like the old one, an' ever'thing's lit up, an' it's snowin' like ever'thing!"
Mr. Demry's party was to take place between the time he came home from the matinee and the time he returned for the evening performance. Long before the hour appointed, his guests began to arrive, dirty-faced and clean, fat and thin, tidy and ragged, big and little, but all wearing in their eyes that gift of nature to the most sordid youth, the gift of expectancy. There were fairies and ogres and pirates and Indians in costumes that needed only the proper imagination to make them convincing. If by any chance a wistful urchin arrived in his rags alone, Mr. Demry promptly evolved a cocked hat from a newspaper, and a sword from a box top, and transformed him into a prancing knight.
The children had been to Sunday-school entertainments where they had sat in prim rows and watched grown people have all the fun of fixing the tree and distributing the presents, but for most of them this was the first Christmas that they had actually helped to make. Every link in the colored paper garlands was a matter of pride to some one.
What the children had left undone, Mr. Demry had finished. All the movables had been put out of sight as if they were never to be wanted again. From the ceiling swung two glowing paper lanterns that threw soft, mysterious, dancing lights on things. In the big fireplace a huge fire crackled and roared, and on the shelf above it were stacks of golden oranges, and piles of fat, brown doughnuts. Across one corner, on a stout cord, hung some green branches with small candles twinkling above them. It was not exactly a Christmas tree, but it had evidently fooled Santa Claus, for on every branch hung a trinket or a toy for somebody.
And nobody thought, least of all Mr. Demry, of how many squeaks of the old fiddle had gone into the making of this party, of the bread and meat that had gone into the oranges and doughnuts, of the fires that should have warmed Mr. Demry's chilled old bones for weeks to come, that went roaring up the wide chimney in one glorious burst of prodigality.
When the party was in full swing and the excitement was at its highest, the guests were seated on the floor in a double row, and Mr. Demry took his stand by the fireplace, with his fiddle under his chin, and began tuning up.
Out in the dark hall, in quivering expectancy, stood the princess, shivering with impatience as she waited for Dan to fling open the door for her triumphant entrance. Every twang of the violin strings vibrated in her heart, and she could scarcely wait for the signal. It was the magic moment when buttons ceased to exist and tinsel crowns became a reality.
The hall was dark and very cold, and the snow drifting in made a white patch on the threshold. Nance, steadying her crown against the icy draught, lifted her head suddenly and listened. From the room on the opposite side of the hall came a woman's frightened cry, followed by the sound of breaking furniture. The next instant the door was flung open, and Mrs. Smelts, with her baby in her arms, rushed forth. Close behind her rolled Mr. Smelts, his shifted ballast of Christmas cheer threatening each moment to capsize him.
"I'll learn ye to stop puttin' cures in my coffee!" he bellowed. "Spoilin' me taste fer liquor, are ye? I'll learn ye!"
"I never meant no harm, Jim," quailed Mrs. Smelts, cowering in the corner with one arm upraised to shield the baby. "I seen the ad in the paper. It claimed to be a whisky-cure. Don't hit me, Jim--don't--" But before she could finish, Mr. Smelts had struck her full in the face with a brutal fist and had raised his arm to strike again. But the blow never fell.
The quick blood that had made Phil Molloy one of the heroes of Chickasaw Bluffs rose in the veins of his small granddaughter, and she suddenly saw red. Had Jim Smelts been twice the size he was, she would have sprung at him just the same and rained blow after stinging blow upon his befuddled head with her slender fairy wand.
"Git up the steps!" she shrieked to Mrs. Smelts. "Fer God's sake git out of his way! Dan! Dan Lewis! Help! Help!"
Mr. Smelts, infuriated at the interference, had pinioned Nance's arms behind her and was about to beat her crowned head against the wall when Dan rushed into the hall.
"Throw him out the front door!" screamed Nance. "Help me push him down the steps!"
Mr. Smelts' resistance was fierce, but brief. His legs were much drunker than his arms, and when the two determined youngsters flung themselves upon him and shoved him out of the door, he lost his balance and fell headlong to the street below.
By this time the party had swarmed into the hall and out on the steps and Mr. Demry's gentle, frightened face could be seen peering over their decorated heads. The uproar had brought other tenants scurrying from the upper floors, and somebody was dispatched for a police. Dense and denser grew the crowd, and questions, excuses, accusations were heard on every side.
"They've done killed him," wailed a woman's voice above the other noises. It was Mrs. Smelts who, with all the abandonment of a bereft widow, cast herself beside the huddled figure lying motionless in the snow.
"What's all this row about?" demanded Cockeye, forcing his way to the front and assuming an air of stern authority.
"They've killed my Jim!" wailed Mrs. Smelts. "I'm goin' to have the law on 'em!"
The policeman, with an impolite request that she stop that there caterwauling, knelt on the wet pavement and made a hasty diagnosis of the case.
"Leg's broke, and head's caved in a bit. That's all I can see is the matter of him. Who beat him up?"
"Him an' her!" accused Mrs. Smelts hysterically, pointing to Dan and Nance, who stood shivering beside Mr. Demry on the top step.
"Well, I'll be hanged if them ain't the same two that was had up last summer!" said the policeman in profound disgust. "It's good-by fer them all right."
"But we was helpin' Mis' Smelts!" cried Nance in bewilderment. "He was beatin' her. He was goin' to hit the baby--"
"Here comes the Black Maria!" yelled an emissary from the corner, and the crowd parted as the long, narrow, black patrol-wagon clanged noisily into the narrow court.
Mr. Smelts was lifted in, none too gently, and as he showed no signs of returning consciousness, Cock-eye paused irresolute and looked at Dan.
"You best be comin' along, too," he said with sudden decision. "The bloke may be hurt worse 'rn I think. I'll just drop you at the detention home 'til over Sunday."
"You shan't take Dan Lewis!" cried Nance in instant alarm. "He was helpin' me, I tell you! He ain't done nothin' bad--" Then as Dan was hustled down the steps and into the wagon, she lost her head completely. Regardless of consequences, she hurled herself upon the law. She bit it and scratched it and even spat upon it.
Had Mrs. Snawdor or Uncle Jed been there, the catastrophe would never have happened; but Mrs. Snawdor was at the post-office, and Uncle Jed at the signal tower, and the feeble protests of Mr. Demry were as futile as the twittering of a sparrow.
"I'll fix you, you little spitfire!" cried the irate officer, holding her hands and lifting her into the wagon. "Some of you women put a cloak around her, and be quick about it."
Nance, refusing to be wrapped up, continued to fight savagely.
"I ain't goin' in the hurry-up wagon!" she screamed. "I ain't done nothin' bad! Let go my hands!"
But the wagon was already moving out of the alley, and Nance suddenly ceased to struggle. An accidental combination of circumstances, too complicated and overwhelming to be coped with, was hurrying her away to some unknown and horrible fate. She looked at her mud-splashed white slippers that were not yet paid for, and then back at the bright window behind which the party was waiting. In a sudden anguish of disappointment she flung herself face downward on the long seat and sobbed with a passion that was entirely too great for her small body.
Sitting opposite, his stiff, stubby hair sticking out beneath his pirate hat, Dan Lewis, forgetting his own misfortune, watched her with dumb compassion, and between them, on the floor, lay a drunken hulk of a man with blood trickling across his ugly, bloated face, his muddy feet resting on all that remained of a gorgeous, tinsel crown.
It was at this moment that the Christmas spirit fled in despair from Calvary Alley and took refuge in the big cathedral where, behind the magnificent new window, a procession of white-robed choir-boys, led by Mac Clarke, were joyously proclaiming:
"Hark! the herald angels sing Glory to the new-born King;"
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