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"I don't take no stock in heaven havin' streets of gold," said Mrs. Snawdor. "It'll be just my luck to have to polish 'em. You needn't tell me if there's all that finery in heaven, they won't keep special angels to do the dirty work!"
She and Mrs. Smelts were scrubbing down the stairs of Number One, not as a matter of cleanliness, but for the social benefit to be derived therefrom. It was a Sunday morning institution with them, and served quite the same purpose that church-going does for certain ladies in a more exalted sphere.
"I hope the Bible's true," said Mrs. Smelts, with a sigh. "Where it says there ain't no marryin' nor givin' in marriage."
"Oh, husbands ain't so worse if you pick 'em right," Mrs. Snawdor said with the conviction of experience. "As fer me, I ain't hesitatin' to say I like the second-handed ones best."
"I suppose they are better broke in. But no other woman but me would 'a' looked at Mr. Smelts."
"You can't tell," said Mrs. Snawdor. "Think of me takin' Snawdor after bein' used to Yager an' Molloy! Why, if you'll believe me, Mr. Burks, lyin' there in bed fer four months now, takes more of a hand in helpin' with the childern than Snawdor, who's up an' around."
"Kin he handle hisself any better? Mr. Burks, I mean."
"Improvin' right along. Nance has got him to workin' on a patent now. It's got somethin' to do with a engine switch. Wisht you could see the railroad yards she's rigged up on his bed. The childern are plumb crazy 'bout it."
"Nance is gittin' awful pretty," Mrs. Smelts said. "I kinder 'lowed Dan Lewis an' her'd be makin' a match before this."
Mrs. Snawdor gathered her skirts higher about her ankles and transferred her base of operations to a lower step.
"You can't tell nothin' at all 'bout that girl. She was born with the bit 'tween her teeth, an' she keeps it there. No more 'n you git her goin' in one direction than she turns up a alley on you. It's night school now. There ain't a spare minute she ain't peckin' on that ole piece of a type-writer Ike Lavinski loaned her."
"She's got a awful lot of energy," sighed Mrs. Smelts.
"Energy! Why it's somethin' fierce! She ain't content to let nothin' stay the way it is. Wears the childern plumb out washin' 'em an' learnin' 'em lessons, an' harpin' on their manners. If you believe me, she's got William J. that hacked he goes behind the door to blow his nose!"
"It's a blessin' she didn't go off with them 'Follies,'" said Mrs. Smelts. "Birdie lost her job over two months ago, an' the Lord knows what she's livin' on. The last I heard of her she was sick an' stranded up in Cincinnati, an' me without so much as a dollar bill to send her!" And Mrs. Smelts sat down in a puddle of soap-suds and gave herself up to the luxury of tears.
At this moment a door on the third floor banged, and Nance Molloy, a white figure against her grimy surroundings, picked her way gingerly down the slippery steps. Her cheap, cotton skirt had exactly the proper flare, and her tailor-made shirtwaist was worn with the proud distinction of one who conforms in line, if not in material, to the mode of the day.
"Ain't she the daisy?" exclaimed Mrs. Snawdor, gaily, and even Mrs. Smelts dried her eyes, the better to appreciate Nance's gala attire.
"We're too swell to be Methodist any longer!" went on Mrs. Snawdor, teasingly. "We're turned 'Piscopal!"
"You ain't ever got the nerve to be goin' over to the cathedral," Mrs. Smelts asked incredulously.
"Sure, why not?" said Nance, giving her hat a more sophisticated tilt. "Salvation's as free there as it is anywhere."
It was not salvation, however, that was concerning Nance Molloy as she took her way jauntily out of the alley and, circling the square, joined the throng of well-dressed men and women ascending the broad steps of the cathedral.
From that day when she had found herself back in the alley, like a bit of driftwood that for a brief space is whirled out of its stagnant pool, only to be cast back again, she had planned ceaselessly for a means of escape. During the first terrible weeks of Uncle Jed's illness, her thoughts flew for relief sometimes to Dan, sometimes to Mac. And Dan answered her silent appeal in person, coming daily with his clumsy hands full of necessities, his strong arms ready to lift, his slow speech quickened to words of hope and cheer. Mac came only in dreams, with gay, careless eyes and empty, useless hands, and lips that asked more than they gave. Yet it was around Mac's shining head that the halo of romance oftenest hovered.
It was not until Uncle Jed grew better, and Dan's visits ceased, that Nance realized what they had meant to her. To be sure her efforts to restore things to their old familiar footing had been fruitless, for Dan refused stubbornly to overlook the secret that stood between them, and Nance, for reasons best known to herself, refused to explain matters.
But youth reckons time by heart-throbs, and during Uncle Jed's convalescence Nance found the clock of life running ridiculously slow. Through Ike Lavinski, whose favor she had won by introducing him to Dr. Adair, she learned of a night school where a business course could be taken without expense. She lost no time in enrolling and, owing to her thorough grounding of the year before, was soon making rapid progress. Every night on her way to school, she walked three squares out of her way on the chance of meeting Dan coming from the factory, and coming and going, she watched the cathedral, wondering if Mac still sang there.
One Sunday, toward the close of summer, she followed a daring impulse, and went to the morning service. She sat in one of the rear pews and held her breath as the procession of white-robed men and boys filed into the choir. Mac Clarke was not among them, and she gave a little sigh of disappointment, and wondered if she could slip out again.
On second thought she decided to stay. Even in the old days when she had stolen into the cathedral to look for nickels under the seats, she had been acutely aware of "the pretties." But she had never attended a service, or seen the tapers lighted, and the vast, cool building, with its flickering lights and disturbing music, impressed her profoundly.
Presently she began to make discoveries: the meek apologetic person tip-toeing about lowering windows was no other than the pompous and lordly Mason who had so often loomed over her as an avenging deity. In the bishop, clad in stately robes, performing mysterious rites before the altar, she recognized "the funny old guy" with the bald head, with whom she had compared breakfast menus on a historical day at the graded school.
So absorbed was she in these revelations that she did not notice that she was sitting down while everybody else was standing up, until a small black book was thrust over her shoulder and a white-gloved finger pointed to the top of the page. She rose hastily and tried to follow the service. It seemed that the bishop was reading something which the people all around her were beseeching the Lord to hear. She didn't wonder that the Lord had to be begged to listen. She wasn't going to listen; that was one thing certain.
Then the organ pealed forth, and voices caught up the murmuring words and lifted them and her with them to the great arched ceiling. As long as the music lasted, she sat spell-bound, but when the bishop began to read again, this time from a book resting on the out-stretched wings of a big brass bird, her attention wandered to the great stained glass window above the altar. The reverse side of it was as familiar to her as the sign over Slap Jack's saloon. From the alley it presented opaque blocks of glass above the legend that had been one of the mysteries of her childhood. Now as she looked, the queer figures became shining angels with lilies in their hands, and she made the amazing discovery that "Evol si dog," seen from the inside, spelled "God is Love."
She sat quite still, pondering the matter. The bishop and the music and even Mac were for the time completely forgotten. Was the world full of things like that, puzzling and confused from the outside, and simple and easy from within? Within what? Her mind groped uncertainly along a strange path. So God was love? Why hadn't the spectacled lady told her so that time in the juvenile court instead of writing down her foolish answer? But love had to do with sweethearts and dime novels and plays on the stage. How could God be that? Maybe it meant the kind of love Mr. Demry had for his little daughter, or the love that Dan had for his mother, or the love she had for the Snawdor baby that died. Maybe the love that was good was God, and the love that was bad was the devil, maybe--
Her struggle with these wholly new and perplexing problems was interrupted by the arrival of a belated worshiper, who glided into the seat beside her and languidly knelt in prayer. Nance's attention promptly leaped from moral philosophy to clothes. Her quick eyes made instant appraisal of the lady's dainty costume, then rested in startled surprise on her lowered profile. The straight delicate features, slightly foreign, the fair hair rippling from the neck, were disconcertingly familiar. But when Nance saw her full face, with the petulant mouth and wrinkled brow, the impression vanished.
After a long time the service came to an end, and just as Nance was waiting to pass out, she heard some one say:
"When do you expect your son home, Mrs. Clarke? We miss him in the choir."
And the fair-haired lady in front of her looked up and smiled, and all her wrinkles vanished as she said:
"We expect him home before next Sunday, if the naughty boy doesn't disappoint us again!"
Nance waited to hear no more, but fled into the sunlight and around the corner, hugging her secret. She was not going to let Mr. Mac see her, she assured herself; she was just going to see him, and hear him sing.
When the next Sunday morning came, it found her once more hurrying up the broad steps of the cathedral. She was just in time, for as she slipped into a vacant pew, the notes of the organ began to swell, and from a side door came the procession of choir boys, headed by Mac Clarke carrying a great cross of gold.
Nance, hiding behind the broad back of the man in front of her, watched the procession move into the chancel, and saw the members of the choir file into their places. She had no interest now in the bishop's robes or the lighted tapers or cryptic inscriptions. Throughout the long service her attention was riveted on the handsome, white-robed figure which sat in a posture of bored resignation, wearing an expression of Christian martyrdom.
When the recessional sounded, she rose with the rest of the congregation, still keeping behind the protecting back of the man in front. But when she saw Mac lift the shining cross and come toward her down the chancel steps at the head of the singing procession, something made her move suddenly to the end of the pew, straight into the shaft of light that streamed through the great west window.
Mac, with his foot on the lowest step, paused for the fraction of a second, and the cross that he held swayed slightly. Then he caught step again and moved steadily forward.
Nance hurried away before the benediction. She was never going to do it again, she promised herself repeatedly. And yet, how wonderful it had been! Straight over the heads of the congregation for their eyes to meet like that, and for him to remember as she was remembering!
For three weeks she kept her promise and resolutely stayed away from the cathedral. One would have to be "goin' on nineteen" and live in Calvary Alley to realize the heroic nature of her moral struggle. Victory might have been hers in the end, had not Dan Lewis for the first time in years, failed one Saturday to spend his half-holiday with her. He had come of late, somber and grimly determined to give her no peace until he knew the truth. But Dan, even in that mood, was infinitely better than no Dan at all. When he sent her word that he was going with some of the men from the factory up the river for a swim, she gave her shoulders a defiant shrug, and set to work to launder her one white dress and stove-polish her hat, with the pleasing results we have already witnessed through the eyes of Mrs. Snawdor and Mrs. Smelts.
There is no place where a flirtation takes quicker root or matures more rapidly than in ecclesiastical soil. From the moment Nance entered the cathedral on that third Sunday, she and Mac were as acutely aware of each other's every move as if they had been alone together in the garden of Eden. At first she tried to avert her eyes, tried not to see his insistent efforts to attract her attention, affected not to know that he was singing to her, and watching her with impatient delight.
Then the surging notes of the organ died away, the bishop ascended the pulpit, and the congregation settled down to hear the sermon. From that time on Nance ceased to be discreet. There was glance for glance, and smile for smile, and the innumerable wireless messages that youth has exchanged since ardent eyes first sought each other across forbidden spaces.
It was not until the end of the sermon that Nance awoke to the fact that it was high time for Cinderella to be speeding on her way. Seizing a moment when the choir's back was turned to the congregation, she slipped noiselessly out of the cathedral and was fleeing down the steps when she came face to face with Monte Pearce.
"Caught at last!" he exclaimed, planting himself firmly in her way. "I've been playing watchdog for Mac for three Sundays. What are you doing in town?"
"Yes; we thought you were on the road with the 'Follies.' When did you get back?"
"You're seeking information, Mr. Monte Carlo," said Nance, with a smile. "Let me by. I've got to go home."
"I'll go with you. Where do you live?"
"Under my hat."
"Well, I don't know a nicer place to be." Monte laughed and looked at her and kept on laughing, until she felt herself blushing up to the roots of her hair.
"Honest, Mr. Monte, I got to go on," she said appealingly. "I'm in no end of a hurry."
"I can go as fast as you can," said Monte, his cane tapping each step as he tripped briskly down beside her. "I've got my orders from Mac. I'm to stay with you, if you won't stay with me. Which way?"
In consternation for fear the congregation should be dismissed before she could get away, and determined not to let him know where she lived, she jumped aboard a passing car.
"So be it!" said her plump companion, settling himself comfortably on the back seat beside her. "Now tell your Uncle Monte all about it!"
"There's nothing to tell!" declared Nance, with the blush coming back. She was finding it distinctly agreeable to be out alone like this with a grandly sophisticated young gentleman who wore a light linen suit with shoes to match, and whose sole interest seemed to center upon her and her affairs.
"But you know there is!" he persisted. "What made you give us the shake that night of the ball?"
Nance refused to say; so he changed the subject.
"How's Miss Birdie?"
"Give it up. Haven't seen her since you have."
"What? Didn't you go on with the show that next morning?"
"And you've been in town all summer?"
She nodded, and her companion gave a low, incredulous whistle.
"Well, I'll be darned!" he said. "And old Mac sending letters and telegrams every few minutes and actually following the 'Follies' to Boston!"
"Birdie was with 'em up to two months ago," said Nance.
"Mac wasn't after Birdie!" said Monte. "He hasn't had but one idea in his cranium since that night of the carnival ball. I never saw him so crazy about a girl as he is about you."
"Yes, he is!" scoffed Nance, derisively, but she let Monte run on at length, painting in burning terms the devastating extent of Mac's passion, his despair at losing her, his delight at finding her again, and his impatience for an interview.
When Monte finished she looked at him sidewise out of her half-closed eyes.
"Tell him I've gone on a visit to my rich aunt out to the sea-shore in Kansas."
"Give him another show," coaxed Monte. "We were all a bit lit up that night at the ball."
"No, we weren't either!" Nance flashed. "I hadn't had a thing, but one glass of beer, and you know it! I hate your old fizz-water!"
"Well, make it up with Mac. He's going back to college next month, and he's wild to see you."
"Tell him I haven't got time. Tell him I'm studying instrumental."
Nance was fencing for time. Her cool, keen indifference gave little indication of the turmoil that was going on within. If she could manage to see Mac without letting him know where she lived, without Dan's finding it out--
The car compassed the loop and started on the return trip.
"Where do we get off?" asked Monte.
"I'm not getting off anywhere until after you do."
"I've got lots of nickels."
"I've got lots of time!" returned Nance, regardless of her former haste.
At Cathedral Square, Monte rang the bell.
"Have it your own way," he said good-naturedly. "But do send a message to Mac."
Nance let him get off the back platform; then she put her head out of the window.
"You tell him," she called, "that he can't kill two birds with one stone!"
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