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If ever a place had a down-at-heel, out-of-elbow sort of look, it was Calvary Alley. At its open end and two feet above it the city went rushing and roaring past like a great river, quite oblivious of this unhealthy bit of backwater into which some of its flotsam and jetsam had been caught and held, generating crime and disease and sending them out again into the main current.
For despite the fact that the alley rested under the very wing of the great cathedral from which it took its name, despite the fact that it echoed daily to the chimes in the belfry and at times could even hear the murmured prayers of the congregation, it concerned itself not in the least with matters of the spirit. Heaven was too remote and mysterious, Hell too present and prosaic, to be of the least interest. And the cathedral itself, holding out welcoming arms to all the noble avenues that stretched in leafy luxury to the south, forgot entirely to glance over its shoulder at the sordid little neighbor that lay under the very shadow of its cross.
At the blind end of the alley, wedged in between two towering warehouses, was Number One, a ramshackle tenement which in some forgotten day had been a fine old colonial residence. The city had long since hemmed it in completely, and all that remained of its former grandeur were a flight of broad steps that once boasted a portico and the imposing, fan-shaped arch above the doorway.
In the third floor of Number One, on the side next the cathedral, dwelt the Snawdor family, a social unit of somewhat complex character. The complication came about by the paterfamilias having missed his calling. Mr. Snawdor was by instinct and inclination a bachelor. He had early in life found a modest rut in which he planned to run undisturbed into eternity, but he had been discovered by a widow, who was possessed of an initiative which, to a man of Snawdor's retiring nature, was destiny.
At the time she met him she had already led two reluctant captives to the hymeneal altar, and was wont to boast, when twitted about the fact, that "the Lord only knew what she might 'a' done if it hadn't been fer them eye-teeth!" Her first husband had been Bud Molloy, a genial young Irishman who good-naturedly allowed himself to be married out of gratitude for her care of his motherless little Nance. Bud had not lived to repent the act; in less than a month he heroically went over an embankment with his engine, in one of those fortunate accidents in which "only the engineer is killed."
The bereft widow lost no time in seeking consolation. Naturally the first person to present himself on terms of sympathetic intimacy was the undertaker who officiated at poor Bud's funeral. At the end of six months she married him, and was just beginning to enjoy the prestige which his profession gave her, when Mr. Yager also passed away, becoming, as it were, his own customer. Her legacy from him consisted of a complete embalming outfit and a feeble little Yager who inherited her father's tendency to spells.
Thus encumbered with two small girls, a less sanguine person would have retired from the matrimonial market. But Mrs. Yager was not easily discouraged; she was of a marrying nature, and evidently resolved that neither man nor Providence should stand in her way. Again casting a speculative eye over the field, she discerned a new shop in the alley, the sign of which announced that the owner dealt in "Bungs and Fawcetts." On the evening of the same day the chronic ailment from which the kitchen sink had suffered for two years was declared to be acute, and Mr. Snawdor was called in for consultation.
He was a timid, dejected person with a small pointed chin that trembled when he spoke. Despite the easy conventions of the alley, he kept his clothes neatly brushed and his shoes polished, and wore a collar on week days. These signs of prosperity were his undoing. Before he had time to realize what was happening to him, he had been skilfully jolted out of his rut by the widow's experienced hand, and bumped over a hurried courtship into a sudden marriage. He returned to consciousness to find himself possessed of a wife and two stepchildren and moved from his small neat room over his shop to the indescribable disorder of Number One.
The subsequent years had brought many little Snawdors in their wake, and Mr. Snawdor, being thus held up by the highwayman Life, ignominiously surrendered. He did not like being married; he did not enjoy being a father; his one melancholy satisfaction lay in being a martyr.
Mrs. Snawdor, who despite her preference for the married state derived little joy from domestic duties, was quite content to sally forth as a wage-earner. By night she scrubbed office buildings and by day she slept and between times she sought diversion in the affairs of her neighbors.
Thus it was that the household burdens fell largely upon Nance Molloy's small shoulders, and if she wiped the dishes without washing them, and "shook up the beds" without airing them, and fed the babies dill pickles, it was no more than older housekeepers were doing all around her.
Late in the afternoon of the day of the fight, when the sun, despairing of making things any hotter than they were, dropped behind the warehouse, Nance, carrying a box of crackers, a chunk of cheese, and a bucket of beer, dodged in and out among the push-carts and the barrels of the alley on her way home from Slap Jack's saloon. There was a strong temptation on her part to linger, for a hurdy-gurdy up at the corner was playing a favorite tune, and echoes of the fight were still heard from animated groups in various doorways. But Nance's ears still tingled from a recent boxing, and she resolutely kept on her way until she reached the worn steps of Number One and scurried through its open doorway.
The nice distinction between a flat and a tenement is that the front door of one is always kept closed, and the other open. In this particular instance the matter admitted of no discussion, for there was no front door. The one that originally hung under the fan-shaped Colonial arch had long since been kicked in during some nocturnal raid, and had never been replaced.
When the gas neglected to get itself lighted before dark at Number One, you had to feel your way along the hall in complete darkness, until your foot struck something; then you knew you had reached the stairs and you began to climb. It was just as well to feel along the damp wall as you went, for somebody was always leaving things on the steps for people to stumble over.
Nance groped her way cautiously, resting her bucket every few steps and taking a lively interest in the sounds and smells that came from behind the various closed doors she passed. She knew from the angry voices on the first floor that Mr. Smelts had come home "as usual"; she knew who was having sauerkraut for supper, and whose bread was burning.
The odor of cooking food reminded her of something. The hall was dark and the beer can full, so she sat down at the top of the first flight and, putting her lips to the foaming bucket was about to drink, when the door behind her opened and a keen-faced young Jew peered out.
"Say, Nance," he whispered curiously, "have they swore out the warrant on you yet?"
Nance put down the bucket and looked up at him with a fine air of unconcern.
"Don't know and don't keer!" she said. "Where was you hidin' at, when the fight was goin' on?"
"Getting my lessons. Did the cop pinch the Clarke guy?"
"You betcher," said Nance. "You orter seen the way he took on! Begged to beat the band. Me and Danny never. Me and him--"
A volley of curses came from the hall below, the sound of a blow, followed by a woman's faint scream of protest, then a door slammed.
"If I was Mis' Smelts," said Nance darkly, with a look that was too old for ten years, "I wouldn't stand for that. I wouldn't let no man hit me. I'd get him sent up. I--"
"You walk yourself up them steps, Nance Molloy!" commanded Mrs. Snawdor's rasping voice from the floor above. "I ain't got no time to be waitin' while you gas with Ike Lavinsky."
Nance, thus admonished, obeyed orders, arriving on the domestic hearth in time to prevent the soup from boiling over. Mr. Snawdor, wearing a long apron and an expression of tragic doom, was trying to set the table, while over and above and beneath him surged his turbulent offspring. In a broken rocking-chair, fanning herself with a box-top, sat Mrs. Snawdor, indulging herself in a continuous stream of conversation and apparently undisturbed by the uproar around her. Mrs. Snawdor was not sensitive to discord. As a necessary adjustment to their environment, her nerves had become soundproof.
"You certainly missed it by not being here!" she was saying to Mr. Snawdor. "It was one of the liveliest mix-ups ever I seen! One of them rich boys bust the cathedral window. Some say it'll cost over a thousan' dollars to git it fixed. An' I pray to God his paw'll have to pay every cent of it!"
"Can't you make William J. and Rosy stop that racket?" queried Mr. Snawdor, plaintively. The twins had been named at a time when Mrs. Snawdor's loyalty was wavering between the President and another distinguished statesman with whom she associated the promising phrase, "free silver." The arrival of two babies made a choice unnecessary, and, notwithstanding the fact that one of them was a girl, she named them William J. and Roosevelt, reluctantly abbreviating the latter to "Rosy."
"They ain't hurtin' nothin'," she said, impatient of the interruption to her story. "I wisht you might 'a' seen that ole fool Mason a-lordin' it aroun', an' that little devil Nance a-takin' him off to the life. Everybody nearly died a-laughin' at her. But he says he's goin' to have her up in court, an' I ain't got a blessed thing to wear 'cept that ole hat of yours I trimmed up. Looks like a shame fer a woman never to be fixed to go nowhere!"
Mr. Snawdor, who had been trying ineffectually to get in a word, took this remark personally and in muttering tones called Heaven to witness that it was none of his fault that she didn't have the right clothes, and that it was a pretty kind of a world that would keep a man from gettin' on just because he was honest, and--
"Oh, shut up!" said Mrs. Snawdor, unfeelingly; "it ain't yer lack of work that gits on my nerves; it's yer bein' 'round. I'd pay anybody a quarter a week to keep yer busy!"
Nance, during this exchange of conjugal infelicities, assisted by Lobelia and Fidy, was rescuing sufficient dishes from the kitchen sink to serve for the evening meal. She, too, was finding it difficult to bring her attention to bear on domestic matters after the exciting events of the afternoon.
"An' he says to me,"--she was recounting with dramatic intensity to her admiring audience--"he says, 'Keep offen that concrete.' An' I says, 'It'll take somebody bigger'n you to make me!'"
Now, of course, we know that Nance never said that, but it was what she wished she had said, which, at certain moments in life, seems to the best of us to be quite the same thing.
"Then what?" said Fidy, with a plate suspended in air.
"Then," said Nance with sparkling eyes, "I sticks my foot right in the middle of their old concrete, an' they comes pilin' offen the fence, an' Dan Lewis he--"
"You Nance!" came in warning tones from the other room, "you shet your head an' git on with that supper. Here comes your Uncle Jed this minute!"
At this announcement Nance dropped her dish towel, and dashing to the door flung herself into the arms of a short, fat, baldheaded man who had just come out of the front room across the hall.
"Easy there!" warned the new-comer. "You ain't aimin' to butt the engine clean offen the track, air yer?"
Nance got his arm around her neck, and her arm around his knees, and thus entwined they made their way to the table.
Uncle Jed Burks, uncle by courtesy, was a boarder by day and a gate-tender by night at the signal tower at the railroad crossing. On that day long ago when he had found himself a widower, helpless in the face of domestic problems, he had accepted Mrs. Snawdor's prompt offer of hospitality and come across the hall for his meals. At the end of the week he had been allowed to show his gratitude by paying the rent, and by the end of the month he had become the chief prop of the family. It is difficult to conceive of an Atlas choosing to burden himself with the world, but there are temperaments that seek responsibilities just as there are those, like Mr. Snawdor, who refuse them.
Through endless discomforts, Uncle Jed had stayed on, coaxing Mr. Snawdor into an acceptance of his lot, helping Mrs. Snawdor over financial difficulties, and bestowing upon the little Snawdors the affection which they failed to elicit from either the maternal or the paternal bosom. And the amazing thing was that Uncle Jed always thought he was receiving favors instead of conferring them.
"What's this I hear about my little partner gittin' into trouble?" he asked, catching Nance's chin in his palm and turning her smudged, excited face up to his.
Nance's eyes fell before his glance. For the first time since the fight her pride was mingled with misgiving. But when Mrs. Snawdor plunged into a fresh recital of the affair, with evident approval of the part she had played, her self-esteem returned.
"And you say Mason's fixin' to send her up to the juvenile court?" asked Uncle Jed gravely, his fat hand closing on her small one.
"Dan Lewis has got to go too!" said Nance, a sudden apprehension seizing her at Uncle Jed's solemn face.
"Oh, they won't do nothin' to 'em," said Mrs. Snawdor, pouring hot water over the coffee grounds and shaking the pot vigorously. "Everybody knows it was the Clarke boy that bust the window. Clarke's Bottle Works' son, you know, up there on Zender Street."
"Was it the Clarke boy and Dan Lewis that started the fracas?" asked Uncle Jed.
"No, it was me!" put in Nance.
"Now, Nance Molloy, you lemme hear you say that one time more, an' you know what'll happen!" said Mrs. Snawdor, impressively. "You're fixin' to make me pay a fine."
"I'm mighty sorry Dan Lewis is mixed up in it," said Uncle Jed, shaking his head. "This here's his second offense. He was had up last year."
"An' can you wonder?" asked Mrs. Snawdor, "with his mother what she is?"
"Mrs. Lewis ain't a bad looker," Mr. Snawdor roused himself to observe dejectedly.
His wife turned upon him indignantly. "Well, it's a pity she ain't as good as her looks then. Fer my part I can't see it's to any woman's credit to look nice when she's got the right kind of a switch and a good set of false teeth. It's the woman that keeps her good looks without none of them luxuries that orter be praised."
"Mrs. Lewis ain't done her part by Dan," said Uncle Jed, seating himself at the red-clothed table.
"I should say she ain't," Mrs. Snawdor continued. "I never seen nothin' more pathetical than that there boy when he was no more than three years old, a-tryin' to feed hisself outer the garbage can, an' her a comin an' a goin' in the alley all these years with her nose in the air, too good to speak to anybody."
"Dan don't think his mother's bad to him," said Nance. "He saved up his shoe-shine money an' bought her some perfumery. He lemme smell it."
"Oh, yes!" said Mrs. Snawdor, "she's got to have her perfumery, an' her feather in her hat, an' the whitewash on her face, no matter if Dan's feet are on the groun', an' his naked hide shinin' through his shirt."
"Well, I wish him an' this here little girl wasn't mixed up in this business," repeated Uncle Jed. "Courts ain't no place fer children. Seems like I can't stand fer our little Nance to be mixin' up with shady characters."
Nance shot an apprehensive glance at him and began to look anxious. She had never seen Uncle Jed so solemn before.
"You jes' remember this here, Nancy," went on the signalman, who could no more refrain from pointing a moral when the chance presented itself, than a gun can help going off when the trigger is pulled; "nothin' good ever comes from breakin' laws. They wouldn't a-been made into laws if they wasn't fer our good, an' even when we don't see no reason in keepin' 'em, we ain't got no more right to break through than one of them engines up at the crossing's got a right to come ahead when I signals it from the tower to stop. I been handin' out laws to engines fer goin' on thirty year, an' I never seen one yet that bust over a law that didn't come to grief. You keep on the track, Sister, an' watch the signals an' obey orders an' you'll find it pays in the end. An' now, buck up, an' don't be scared. We'll see what we can do to git you off."
"Who's skeered?" said Nance, with a defiant toss of her head. "I ain't skeered of nothin'."
But that night when Mrs. Snawdor and Uncle Jed had gone to work, and Mr. Snawdor had betaken himself out of ear-shot of the wailing baby, Nance's courage began to waver. After she had finished her work and crawled into bed between Fidy and Lobelia, the juvenile court, with its unknown terrors, rose before her. All the excitement of the day died out; her pride in sharing the punishment with Dan Lewis vanished. She lay staring up into the darkness, swallowing valiantly to keep down the sobs, fiercely resolved not to let her bed-fellows witness the break-down of her courage.
"What's the matter, Nance?" asked Fidy.
"I'm hot!" said Nance, crossly. "It feels like the inside of a oven in here!"
"I bet Maw forgot to open the window into the shaft," said Fidy.
"Windows don't do no good," said Nance; "they just let in smells. Wisht I was a man! You bet I would be up at Slap Jack's! I'd set under a 'lectric fan, an' pour cold things down me an' listen at the 'phoney-graf ever' night. Hush! Is that our baby?"
A faint wail made her scramble out of bed and rush into the back room where she gathered a hot, squirming bundle into her arms and peered anxiously into its wizened face. She knew the trick babies had of dying when the weather was hot! Two other beloved scraps of humanity had been taken away from her, and she was fiercely determined to keep this one. Lugging the baby to the window, she scrambled over the sill.
The fire-escape was cluttered with all the paraphernalia that doubles the casualty of a tenement fire, but she cleared a space with her foot and sat down on the top step. Beside her loomed the blank warehouse wall, and from the narrow passage-way below came the smell of garbage. The clanging of cars and the rumbling of trucks mingled with the nearer sounds of whirring sewing machines in Lavinski's sweat-shop on the floor below. From somewhere around the corner came, at intervals, the sharp cry of a woman in agony. With that last sound Nance was all too familiar. The coming and going of a human life were no mystery to her. But each time the cry of pain rang out she tried in vain to stop her ears. At last, hot, hungry, lonesome, and afraid, she laid her dirty face against the baby's fuzzy head and they sobbed together in undisturbed misery.
When at last the child fell into a restless sleep, Nance sat patiently on, her small arms stiffening under their burden, and her bare feet and legs smarting from the stings of hungry mosquitos.
By and by the limp garments on the clothes line overhead began to stir, and Nance, lifting her head gratefully to the vagrant breeze, caught her breath. There, just above the cathedral spire, white and cool among fleecy clouds, rose the full August moon. It was the same moon that at that moment was turning ocean waves into silver magic; that was smiling on sleeping forests and wind-swept mountains and dancing streams. Yet here it was actually taking the trouble to peep around the cathedral spire and send the full flood of its radiance into the most sordid corners of Calvary Alley, even into the unawakened soul of the dirty, ragged, tear-stained little girl clasping the sick baby on Snawdor's fire-escape.
Something in Nance responded. Her tense muscles relaxed; she forgot to cry. With eyes grown big and wistful, she watched the shining orb. All the bravado, the fear, and rebellion died out of her, and in hushed wonder she got from the great white night what God in heaven meant for us to get.
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