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What a radically different place the world seems when one doesn't have to begin the day with an alarm clock! There is a hateful authority in its brassy, peremptory summons that puts one on the defensive immediately. To be sure, Nance dreamed she heard it the following day at noon, and sprang up in bed with the terrifying conviction that she would be late at Miss Bobinet's. But when she saw where she was, she gave a sigh of relief, and snuggled down against Birdie's warm shoulder, and tried to realize what had happened to her.
The big theater, the rows of smiling faces, the clapping hands--surely they must have all been a dream? And Mr. Demry? Why had he sat on the steps and cried into a big starchy handkerchief? Oh, yes; she remembered now, but she didn't like to remember, so she hurried on.
There was a cafe, big and noisy, with little tables, and a woman who stood on a platform, with her dress dragging off one shoulder, and sang a beautiful song, called "I'm A-wearying for You." Mr. Monte didn't think it was pretty; he had teased her for thinking so. But then he had teased her for not liking the raw oysters, and for saying the champagne made her nose go to sleep. They had all teased her and laughed at everything she said. She didn't care; she liked it. They thought she was funny and called her "Cubby." At least Mr. Monte did. Mr. Mac didn't call her anything. He talked most of the time to Birdie, but his eyes were all for her, with a smile that sort of remembered and sort of forgot, and--
"Say, Birdie!" She impulsively interrupted her own confused reflections. "Do you think they liked me--honest?"
"Who?" said Birdie, drowsily, "the audience?"
"No. Those fellows last night. I haven't got any looks to brag on, and I'm as green as a string-bean!"
"That's what tickles 'em," said Birdie. "Besides, you can't ever tell what makes a girl take. You got a independent way of walking and talking, and Monte's crazy 'bout your laugh. But you're a funny kid; you beckon a feller with one hand and slap his face with the other."
"Not unless he gets nervy!" said Nance.
After what euphemistically might be termed a buffet breakfast, prepared over the gas and served on the trunk, Nance departed for Calvary Alley, to proclaim to the family her declaration of independence. She was prepared for a battle royal with all whom it might concern, and was therefore greatly relieved to find only her stepmother at home. That worthy lady surrendered before a gun was fired.
"Ain't that Irish luck fer you?" she exclaimed, almost enviously. "Imagine one of Yager's and Snawdor's childern gittin' on the stage! If Bud Molloy hadn't taken to railroading he could 'a' been a end man in a minstrel show! You got a lot of his takin' ways, Nance. It's a Lord's pity you ain't got his looks!"
"Oh, give me time!" said Nance, whose spirits were soaring.
"I sort 'er thought of joining the ballet onct myself," said Mrs. Snawdor, with a conscious smile. "It was on account of a scene-shifter I was runnin' with along about the time I met your pa."
"You!" exclaimed Nance. "Oh! haven't I got a picture of you dancing. Wait 'til I show you!" And ably assisted by the bolster and the bedspread, she gave a masterly imitation of her stout stepmother that made the original limp with laughter. Then quite as suddenly, Nance collapsed into a chair and grew very serious.
"Say!" she demanded earnestly, "honest to goodness now! Do you think there's any sin in me going on the stage?"
"Sin!" repeated Mrs. Snawdor. "Why, I think it's elegant. I was sayin' so to Mrs. Smelts only yesterday when she was takin' on about Birdie's treatin' her so mean an' never comin' to see her or writin' to her. 'Don't lay it on the stage,' I says to her. 'Lay it on Birdie; she always was a stuck-up piece.'"
Nance pondered the matter, her chin on her palm. Considering the chronic fallibility of Mrs. Snawdor's judgment, she would have been more comfortable if she had met with some opposition.
"Mr. Demry thinks it's wrong," said Nance, taking upon herself the role of counsel for the prosecution. "He took on something fierce when he saw me last night."
"He never knowed what he was doin'," Mrs. Snawdor said. "They tell me he can play in the orchestry, when he's full as a nut."
"And there's Uncle Jed," continued Nance uneasily. "What you reckon he's going to say?"
"You leave that to me," said Mrs. Snawdor, darkly. "Mr. Burks ain't goin' to git a inklin' 'til you've went. There ain't nobody I respect more on the face of the world than I do Jed Burks, but some people is so all-fired good that livin' with 'em is like wearin' new shoes the year round."
"'T ain't as if I was doing anything wicked," said Nance, this time counsel for the defense.
"Course not," agreed Mrs. Snawdor. "How much they goin' to pay you?"
The incredible sum was mentioned, and Mrs. Snawdor's imagination took instant flight.
"You'll be gittin' a autymobile at that rate. Say, if I send Lobelia round to Cemetery Street and git yer last week's pay, can I have it?"
Nance was counting on that small sum to finish payment on her spring suit, but in the face of imminent affluence she could ill afford to be niggardly.
"I'll buy Rosy V. some shoes, an' pay somethin' on the cuckoo clock," planned Mrs. Snawdor, "an' I've half a mind to take another policy on William J. That boy's that venturesome it wouldn't surprise me none to see him git kilt any old time!"
Nance, who had failed to convince herself, either as counsel for the defense or counsel for the prosecution, assumed the prerogative of judge and dismissed the case. If older people had such different opinions about right and wrong, what was the use in her bothering about it? With a shrug of her shoulders she set to work sorting her clothes and packing the ones she needed in a box.
"The gingham dresses go to Fidy," she said with reckless generosity, "the blue skirt to Lobelia, and my Madonna--" Her eyes rested wistfully on her most cherished possession. "I think I'd like Rosy to have that when she grows up."
"All right," agreed Mrs. Snawdor. "There ain't no danger of anybody takin' it away from her."
Nance was kneeling on the floor, tying a cord about her box when she heard steps on the stairs.
"Uncle Jed?" she asked in alarm.
"No. Just Snawdor. He won't ast no questions. He ain't got gumption enough to be curious."
"I hate to go sneaking off like this without telling everybody good-by," said Nance petulantly, "Uncle Jed, and the children, and the Levinskis, and Mr. Demry, and--and--Dan."
"You don't want to take no risks," said Mrs. Snawdor, importantly. "There's a fool society for everything under the sun, an' somebody'll be tryin' to git out a injunction. I don't mind swearin' to whatever age you got to be, but Mr. Burks is so sensitive about them things."
"All right," said Nance, flinging on her hat and coat, "tell 'em how it was when I'm gone. I'll be sending you money before long."
"That's right," whispered Mrs. Snawdor, hanging over the banister as Nance felt her way down the stairs. "You be good to yerself an' see if you can't git me a theayter ticket for to-morrow night. Git two, an' I'll take Mis' Gorman."
Never had Nance tripped so lightly down those dark, narrow stairs--the stairs her feet had helped to wear away in her endless pilgrimages with buckets of coal and water and beer, with finished and unfinished garments, and omnipresent Snawdor babies. She was leaving it all forever, along with the smell of pickled herrings and cabbage and soapsuds. But she was not going to forget the family! Already she was planning munificent gifts from that fabulous sum that was henceforth to be her weekly portion.
At Mr. Demry's closed door she paused; then hastily retracing her steps, she slipped back to her own room and got a potted geranium, bearing one dirty-faced blossom. This she placed on the floor outside his door and then, picking up her big box, she slipped quickly out of the house, through the alley and into the street.
It was late when she got back to Birdie's room, and as she entered, she was startled by the sound of smothered sobbing.
"Birdie!" she cried in sudden alarm, peering into the semi-darkness, "what's the matter? Are you fired?"
Birdie started up hastily from the bed where she had been lying face downward, and dried her eyes.
"No," she said crossly. "Nothing's the matter, only I got the blues."
"The blues!" repeated Nance, incredulously. "What for?"
"Oh, everything. I wish I was dead."
"Birdie Smelts, what's happened to you?" demanded Nance in alarm, sitting by her on the bed and trying to put her arm around her.
"Whoever said anything had happened?" asked the older girl, pushing her away. "Stop asking fool questions and get dressed. We'll be late as it is."
For some time they went about their preparations in silence; then Nance, partly to relieve the tension, and partly because the matter was of vital interest, asked:
"Do you reckon Mr. Mac and Mr. Monte will come again to-night?"
"You can't tell," said Birdie. "What do they care about engagements? We are nothing but dirt to them--just dirt under their old patent-leather pumps!"
This bitterness on Birdie's part was so different from her customary superiority where men were concerned, that Nance gasped.
"If they do come," continued Birdie vindictively, "you just watch me teach Mac Clarke a thing or two. He needn't think because his folks happen to be swells, he can treat me any old way. I'll make it hot for him if he don't look out, you see if I don't."
Once back at the Gaiety, Nance forgot all about Birdie and her love affairs. Her own small triumph completely engrossed her. A morning paper had mentioned the fantastic dance of the little bear, and had given her three lines all to herself. Reeser was jubilant, the director was mollified, and even the big comedian whose name blazed in letters of fire outside, actually stopped her in the wings to congratulate her.
"Look here, young person," he said, lifting a warning finger, "you want to be careful how you steal my thunder. You'll be taking my job next!"
Whereupon Nance had the audacity to cross her eyes and strike his most famous pose before she dodged under his arm and scampered down the stairs.
It seemed incredible that the marvelous events of the night before could happen all over again; but they did. She had only to imitate her own performance to send the audience into peals of laughter. It would have been more fun to try new tricks, but on this point Pulatki was adamant.
"I vant zat you do ze same act, no more, no less, see?" he demanded of her, fiercely.
When the encore came, and at Reeser's command she snatched off her bear's head and made her funny, awkward, little bow, she involuntarily glanced down at the orchestra. Mr. Demry was not there, but in the parquet she encountered a pair of importunate eyes that set her pulses bounding. They sought her out in the subsequent chorus and followed her every movement in the grand march that followed.
"Mr. Mac's down there," she whispered excitedly to Birdie as they passed in the first figure, but Birdie tossed her head and flirted persistently with the gallery which was quite unused to such marked attention from the principal show girl.
There was no supper after the play that night, and it was only after much persuasion on Mac's part, reinforced by the belated Monte, that Birdie was induced to come out of her sulks and go for a drive around the park.
"Me for the front seat!" cried Nance hoydenishly, and then, as Mac jumped in beside her and took the wheel, she saw her mistake.
"Oh! I didn't know--" she began, but Mac caught her hand and gave it a grateful squeeze.
"Confess you wanted to sit by me!" he whispered.
"But I didn't!" she protested hotly. "I never was in a automobile before and I just wanted to see how it worked!"
She almost persuaded herself that this was true when they reached the long stretch of parkway, and Mac let her take the wheel. It was only when in the course of instruction Mac's hand lingered too long on hers, or his gay, careless face leaned too close, that she had her misgivings.
"Say! this is great!" she cried rapturously, with her feet braced and her eyes on the long road ahead. "When it don't get the hic-cups, it beats a horse all hollow!"
"What do you know about horses?" teased Mac, giving unnecessary assistance with the wheel.
"Enough to keep my hands off the reins when another fellow's driving!" she said coolly--a remark that moved Mac to boisterous laughter.
When they were on the homeward way and Mac had taken the wheel again, they found little to say to each other. Once he got her to light a cigarette for him, and once or twice she asked a question about the engine. In Calvary Alley one talked or one didn't as the mood suggested, and Nance was unversed in the fine art of making conversation. It disturbed her not a whit that she and the handsome youth beside her had no common topic of interest. It was quite enough for her to sit there beside him, keenly aware that his arm was pressing hers and that every time she glanced up she found him glancing down.
It was a night of snow and moonshine, one of those transitorial nights when winter is going and spring is coming. Nance held her breath as the car plunged headlong into one mass of black shadows after another only to emerge triumphant into the white moonlight. She loved the unexpected revelations of the headlights, which turned the dim road to silver and lit up the dark turf at the wayside. She loved the crystal-clear moon that was sailing off and away across those dim fields of virgin snow. And then she was not thinking any longer, but feeling--feeling beauty and wonder and happiness and always the blissful thrill of that arm pressed against her own.
Not until they were nearing the city did she remember the couple on the back seat.
"Wake up there!" shouted Mac, tossing his cap over his shoulder. "Gone to sleep?"
"I am trying to induce Miss Birdie to go to the carnival ball with me to-morrow night," said Monte. "It's going to be no end of a lark."
"Take me, too, Birdie, please!" burst out Nance with such childish vehemence that they all laughed.
"What's the matter with us all going?" cried Mac, instantly on fire at the suggestion. "Mother's having a dinner to-morrow night, but I can join you after the show. What do you say, Bird?"
But Birdie was still in the sulks, and it was not until Mac had changed places with Monte and brought the full battery of his persuasions to bear upon her that she agreed to the plan.
That night when the girls were tucked comfortably in bed and the lights were out, they discussed ways and means.
"I'm going to see if I can't borrow a couple of red-bird costumes off Mrs. Ryan," said Birdie, whose good humor seemed completely restored. "We'll buy a couple of masks. I don't know what Monte's letting us in for, but I'll try anything once."
"Will there be dancing, Birdie?" asked Nance, her eyes shining in the dark.
"Of course, Silly! Nothing but. Say, what was the matter with you and Mac to-night? You didn't seem to hit it off."
"Oh! we got along pretty good."
"I never heard you talking much. By the way, he's going to take me to-morrow night, and you are going with Monte."
"Any old way suits me!" said Nance, "just so I get there." But she lay awake for a time staring into the dark, thinking things over.
"Does he always call you 'Bird'?" she asked after a long silence.
"Who, Mac? Yes. Why?"
"Oh! Nothing," said Nance.
The next day being Saturday, there were two performances, beside the packing necessary for an early departure on the morrow. But notwithstanding the full day ahead of her, Birdie spent the morning in bed, languidly directing Nance, who emptied the wardrobe and bureau drawers and sorted and folded the soiled finery. Toward noon she got up and, petulantly declaring that the room was suffocating, announced that she was going out to do some shopping.
"I'll come, too," said Nance, to whom the purchasing of wearing apparel was a new and exciting experience.
"No; you finish up here," said Birdie. "I'll be back soon."
Nance went to the window and watched for her to come out in the street below. She was beginning to be worried about Birdie. What made her so restless and discontented? Why wouldn't she go to see her mother? Why was she so cross with Mac Clarke when he was with her and so miserable when he was away? While she pondered it over, she saw Birdie cross the street and stand irresolute for a moment, before she turned her back on the shopping district and hastened off to the east where the tall pipes of the factories stood like exclamation points along the sky-line.
Already the noon whistles were blowing, and she recognized, above the rest, the shrill voice of Clarke's Bottle Factory. How she used to listen for that whistle, especially on Saturdays. Why, this was Saturday! In the exciting rush of events she had forgotten completely that Dan would be waiting for her at five o'clock at the foot of Cemetery Street. Never once in the months she had been at Miss Bobinet's had he failed to be there on Saturday afternoon. If only she could send him some word, make some excuse! But it was not easy to deceive Dan, and she knew he would never rest until he got at the truth of the matter. No; she had better take Mrs. Snawdor's advice and run no risks. And yet that thought of Dan waiting patiently at the corner tormented her as she finished the packing.
When the time arrived to report at the theater, Birdie had not returned, so Nance rushed off alone at the last minute. It was not until the first chorus was about to be called that the principal show girl, flushed and tired, flung herself into the dressing-room and made a lightning change in time to take her place at the head of the line.
There was a rehearsal between the afternoon and evening performances, and the girls had little time for confidences.
"Don't ask me any questions!" said Birdie crossly, as she sat before her dressing-table, wearily washing off the make-up of the afternoon in order to put on the make-up of the evening. "I'm so dog tired I'd lots rather be going to bed than to that carnival thing!"
"Don't you back out!" warned Nance, to whom it was ridiculous that any one should be tired under such exhilarating circumstances.
"Oh, I'll go," said Birdie, "if it's just for the sake of getting something decent to eat. I'm sick of dancing on crackers and ice-water."
That night Nance, for the first time, was reconciled to the final curtain. The weather was threatening and the audience was small, but that was not what took the keen edge off the performance. It was the absence in the parquet of a certain pair of pursuing eyes that made all the difference. Moreover, the prospect of the carnival ball made even the footlights pale by comparison.
The wardrobe woman, after much coaxing and bribing, had been induced to lend the girls two of the property costumes, and Nance, with the help of several giggling assistants, was being initiated into the mysteries of the red-bird costume. When she had donned the crimson tights, and high-heeled crimson boots, and the short-spangled slip with its black gauze wings, she gave a half-abashed glance at herself in the long mirror.
"I can't do it, Birdie!" she cried, "I feel like a fool. You be a red bird, and let me be a bear!"
"Don't we all do it every night?" asked Birdie. "When we've got on our masks, nobody 'll know us. We'll just be a couple of 'Rag-Time Follies' taking a night off."
"Don't she look cute with her cap on?" cried one of the girls. "I'd give my head to be going!"
Nance put on a borrowed rain-coat which was to serve as evening wrap as well and, with a kiss all around and many parting gibes, ran up the steps in Birdie's wake.
The court outside the stage entrance was a bobbing mass of umbrellas. Groups of girls, pulling their wraps on as they came, tripped noisily down the steps, greeting waiting cavaliers, or hurrying off alone in various directions.
"That's Mac's horn," said Birdie, "a long toot and two short ones. I'd know it in Halifax!"
At the curbing the usual altercation arose between Mac and Birdie as to how they should sit. The latter refused to sit on the front seat for fear of getting wet, and Mac refused to let Monte drive.
"Oh, I don't mind getting wet!" cried Nance with a fine show of indifference. "That's what a rain-coat's for."
When Mac had dexterously backed his machine out of its close quarters, and was threading his way with reckless skill through the crowded streets, he said softly, without turning his head:
"I think I rather like you, Nance Molloy!"
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