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The two reformatories to which the children, after various examinations, were consigned, represented the worst and the best types of such institutions.
Dan Lewis was put behind barred windows with eight hundred other young "foes of society." He was treated as a criminal, and when he resented it, he was put under a cold shower and beaten with a rattan until he fainted. Outraged, humiliated, bitterly resentful, his one idea was to escape. At the end of a month of cruelty and injustice he was developing a hatred against authority that would ultimately have landed him in the State prison had not a miraculous interference from without set him free and returned him to his work in Clarke's Bottle Factory.
It all came about through a letter received by Mrs. Purdy, who was wintering in Florida--a tear-stained, blotted, misspelled letter that had been achieved with great difficulty. It ran:
Dear Mis Purdy, me and Dan Lewis is pinched again. But I ain't a Dellinkent. The jedge says theres a diffrunce. He says he was not puting me in becose I was bad but becose I was not brot upright. He says for me to be good and stay here and git a education. He says its my chanct. I was mad at first, but now I aint. What Im writing you fer is to git Dan Lewis out. He never done nothink what was wrong and he got sent to the House of Refuse. Please Mis Purdy you git him off. He aint bad. You know he aint. You ast everbody at home, and then go tell the Jedge and git him off. I can't stan fer him to be in that ole hole becose it aint fair. Please don't stop at nothink til you git him out. So good-by, loveingly, NANCE.
This had been written a little at a time during Nance's first week at Forest Home. She had arrived in such a burning state of indignation that it required the combined efforts of the superintendent and the matron to calm her. In fact her spirit did not break until she was subjected to a thorough scrubbing from head to foot, and put to bed on a long porch between cold, clean sheets. She was used to sleeping in her underclothes in the hot close air of Snawdor's flat, with Fidy and Lobelia snuggled up on each side. This icy isolation was intolerable! Her hair, still damp, felt strange and uncomfortable; her eyes smarted from the recent application of soap. She lay with her knees drawn up to her chin and shivered and cried to go home.
Hideous thoughts tormented her. Who'd git up the coal, an' do the washin'? Would Mr. Snawdor fergit an' take off Rosy's aesophedity bag, so she'd git the measles an' die like the baby? What did Mr. Lavinski think of her fer not comin' to work out the slipper money? Would Dan ever git his place back at the factory after he'd been in the House of Refuse? Was Mr. Smelts' leg broke plum off, so's he'd have to hobble on a peg-stick?
She cowered under the covers. "God aint no friend of mine," she sobbed miserably.
When she awoke the next morning, she sat up and looked about her. The porch in which she lay was enclosed from floor to ceiling in glass, and there were rows of small white beds like her own, stretching away on each side of her. The tip of her nose was very cold, but the rest of her was surprisingly warm, and the fresh air tasted good in her mouth. It was appallingly still and strange, and she lay down and listened for the sounds that did not come.
There were no factory whistles, no clanging of car bells, no lumbering of heavy wagons. Instead of the blank wall of a warehouse upon which she was used to opening her eyes, there were miles and miles of dim white fields. Presently a wonderful thing happened. Something was on fire out there at the edge of the world--something big and round and red. Nance held her breath and for the first time in her eleven years saw the sun rise.
When getting-up time came, she went with eighteen other girls into a big, warm dressing-room.
"This is your locker," said the girl in charge.
"My whut?" asked Nance.
"Your locker, where you put your clothes."
Nance had no clothes except the ones she was about to put on, but the prospect of being the sole possessor of one of those little closets brought her the first gleam of consolation.
The next followed swiftly. The owner of the adjoining locker proved to be no other than Birdie Smelts. Whatever fear Nance had of Birdie's resenting the part she had played in landing Mr. Smelts in the city hospital was promptly banished.
"You can't tell me nothing about paw," Birdie said at the end of Nance's recital. "I only wish it was his neck instead of his leg that was broke."
"But we never aimed to hurt him," explained Nance, to whom the accident still loomed as a frightful nightmare. "They didn't have no right to send me out here."
"It ain't so worse," said Birdie indifferently. "You get enough to eat and you keep warm and get away from rough-housin'; that's something."
"But I don't belong here!" protested Nance, hotly.
"Aw, forget it," advised Birdie, with a philosophical shrug of her shapely shoulders. Birdie was not yet fifteen, but she had already learned to take the course of least resistance. She was a pretty, weak-faced girl, with a full, graceful figure and full red lips and heavy-lidded eyes that always looked sleepy.
"I wouldn't keer so much if it wasn't fer Dan Lewis," Nance said miserably. "He was inside Mr. Demry's room, an' never knowed a thing about it 'til I hollered."
"Say, I believe you are gone on Dan!" said Birdie, lifting a teasing finger.
"I ain't either!" said Nance indignantly, "but I ain't goin' to quit tryin' 'til I git him out!"
In the bright airy dining-room where they went for breakfast, Nance sat at a small table with five other girls and scornfully refused the glass of milk they offered her as a substitute for the strong coffee to which she was accustomed. She had about decided to starve herself to death, but changed her mind when the griddle-cakes and syrup appeared.
In fact, she changed her mind about many things during those first days. After a few acute attacks of homesickness, she began despite herself to take a pioneer's delight in blazing a new trail. It was the first time she had ever come into contact for more than a passing moment, with decent surroundings and orderly living, and her surprises were endless.
"Say, do these guys make you put on airs like this all the time?" she asked incredulously of her table-companion.
"Like eatin' with a fork, an' washin' every day, an' doin' yer hair over whether it needs it or not?"
"If I had hair as grand as yours, they wouldn't have to make me fix it," said the close-cropped little girl enviously.
Nance looked at her suspiciously. Once before she had been lured by that bait, and she was wary. But the envy in the eyes of the short-haired girl was genuine.
Nance took the first opportunity that presented itself to look in a mirror. To her amazement, her tight, drab-colored braids had become gleaming bands of gold, and there were fluffy little tendrils across her forehead and at the back of her neck. It was unbelievable, too, how much more becoming one nose was to the human countenance than two.
A few days later when one of the older girls said teasingly, "Nance Molloy is stuck on her hair!" Nance answered proudly, "Well, ain't I got a right to be?"
At the end of the first month word came from Mrs. Purdy that she had succeeded in obtaining Dan's release, and that he was back at work at Clarke's, and on probation again. This news, instead of making Nance restless for her own freedom, had quite the opposite effect. Now that her worry over Dan was at an end, she resigned herself cheerfully to the business of being reformed.
The presiding genius of Forest Home was Miss Stanley, the superintendent. She did not believe in high fences or uniforms or bodily punishment. She was tall, handsome, and serene, and she treated the girls with the same grave courtesy with which she treated the directors.
Nance regarded her with something of the worshipful awe she had once felt before an image of the Virgin Mary.
"She don't make you 'fraid exactly," she confided to Birdie. "She makes you 'shamed."
"You can tell she's a real lady the way she shines her finger-nails," said Birdie, to whom affairs of the toilet were of great importance.
"Another way you can tell," Nance added, trying to think the thing out for herself, "is the way she takes slams. You an' me sass back, but a real lady knows how to hold her jaw an' make you eat dirt just the same."
They were standing side by side at a long table in a big, clean kitchen, cutting out biscuit for supper. Other white-capped, white-aproned girls, all intent upon their own tasks, were flitting about, and a teacher sat at a desk beside the window, directing the work. The two girls had fallen into the habit of doing their chores together and telling each other secrets. Birdie's had mostly to do with boys, and it was not long before Nance felt called upon to make a few tentative observations on the same engrossing subject.
"The prettiest boy I ever seen--" she said, "I mean I have ever saw"--then she laughed helplessly. "Well, anyhow, he was that Clarke feller. You know, the one that got pinched fer smashin' the window the first time we was had up?"
"Mac Clarke? Sure, I know him. He's fresh all right."
Birdie did not go into particulars, but she looked important.
"Say, Birdie," Nance asked admiringly, "when you git out of here, what you goin' to do?"
"I'll tell you what I ain't going to do," said Birdie, impressively, in a low voice, "I ain't going to stand in a store, and I ain't going out to work, and I ain't going to work at Clarke's!"
"But what else is left to do?"
"Swear you won't tell?"
Nance crossed her heart with a floury finger.
"I'm going to be a actress," said Birdie.
It was fortunate for Nance that Birdie's term at the home soon ended. She was at that impressionable age which reflects the nearest object of interest, and shortly after Birdie's departure she abandoned the idea of joining her on the professional boards, and decided instead to become a veterinary surgeon.
This decision was reached through a growing intimacy with the lame old soldier who presided over the Forest Home stables. "Doc" was a familiar character in the county, and his advice about horses was sought far and near. Next to horses he liked children, and after them dogs. Adults came rather far down the line, excepting always Miss Stanley, whom he regarded as infallible.
On the red-letter Sunday when Uncle Jed had tramped the ten miles out from town to assure himself of Nance's well-being, he discovered in Doc an old comrade of the Civil War. They had been in the same company, Uncle Jed as a drummer boy, and Doc in charge of the cavalry horses.
"Why, I expect you recollict this child's grandpaw," Uncle Jed said, with his hand on Nance's head, "Molloy, 'Fightin' Phil,' they called him. Went down with the colors at Chickasaw Bluffs."
Doc did remember. Fighting Phil had been one of the idols of his boyhood.
Miss Stanley found in this friendship a solution of Nance's chief difficulty. When a person of eleven has been doing practical housekeeping for a family of eight, she naturally resents the suggestion that there is anything in domestic science for her to learn. Moreover, when said person is anemic and nervous from overwork, and has a tongue that has never known control, it is perilously easy to get into trouble, despite heroic efforts to be good.
The wise superintendent saw in the girl all sorts of possibilities for both good and evil. For unselfish service and passionate sacrifice, as well as obstinate rebellion and hot-headed folly.
At those unhappy times when Nance threatened to break over the bounds, she was sent out to the stables to spend an afternoon with Doc. No matter how sore her grievance, it vanished in the presence of the genial old veterinarian. She never tired of hearing him tell of her fighting Irish grandfather and the pranks he played on his messmates, of Uncle Jed and the time he lost his drumsticks and marched barefoot in the snow, beating his drum with the heels of his shoes.
Most of all she liked the horses. She learned how to put on bandages and poultices and to make a bran mash. Doc taught her how to give a sick horse a drink out of a bottle without choking him, how to hold his tongue with one hand and put a pill far down his throat with the other. The nursing of sick animals seemed to come to her naturally, and she found it much more interesting than school work and domestic science.
"She's got a way with critters," Doc confided proudly to Miss Stanley. "I've seen a horse eat out of her hand when it wouldn't touch food in the manger."
As the months slipped into years, the memory of Calvary Alley grew dim, and Nance began to look upon herself as an integral part of this orderly life which stretched away in a pleasant perspective of work and play. It was the first time that she had ever been tempted to be good, and she fell. It was not Miss Stanley's way to say "don't." Instead, she said, "do," and the "do's" became so engrossing that the "don'ts" were crowded out.
At regular, intervals Mrs. Snawdor made application for her dismissal, and just as regularly a probation officer visited the Snawdor flat and pronounced it unfit.
"I suppose if I had a phoneygraf an' lace curtains you'd let her come home," Mrs. Snawdor observed caustically during one of these inspections. "You bet I'll fix things up next time if I know you are comin'!"
The State was doing its clumsy best to make up to Nance for what she had missed. It was giving her free board, free tuition, and protection from harmful influences. But that did not begin to square the State's account, nor the account of society. They still owed her something for that early environment of dirt and disease. The landlord in whose vile tenement she had lived, the saloon-keeper who had sold her beer, the manufacturer who had bought the garments she made at starvation wages, were all her debtors. Society exists for the purpose of doing justice to its members, and society had not begun to pay its debt to that youthful member whose lot had been cast in Calvary Alley.
One Saturday afternoon in the early spring of Nance's fourth year at Forest Home, Miss Stanley stood in the school-house door, reading a letter. It was the kind of a day when heaven and earth cannot keep away from each other, but the fleecy clouds must come down to play in the sparkling pools, and white and pink blossoms must go climbing up to the sky to flaunt their sweetness against the blue. Yet Miss Stanley, reading her letter, sighed.
Coming toward her down the hillside, plunged a noisy group of children, and behind them in hot pursuit came Nance Molloy, angular, long-legged, lithe as a young sapling and half mad with the spring.
"Such a child still!" sighed Miss Stanley, as she lifted a beckoning hand.
The children crowded about her, all holding out hot fists full of faded wild flowers.
"Look!" cried one breathlessly. "We found 'em in the hollow. And Nance says if you'll let her, she'll take us next Saturday to the old mill where some yellow vi'lets grow!"
Miss Stanley looked down at the flushed, happy faces; then she put her arm around Nance's shoulder.
"Nancy will not be with us next Saturday," she said regretfully. "She's going home."
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