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It was November of the following year that the bird of ill-omen, which had been flapping its wings over Calvary Alley for so long, decided definitely to alight. A catastrophe occurred that threatened to remove the entire population of the alley to another and, we trust, a fairer world.
Mrs. Snawdor insists to this day that it was the sanitary inspector who started the trouble. On one of his infrequent rounds he had encountered a strange odor in Number One, a suspicious, musty odor that refused to come under the classification of krout, kerosene, or herring. The tenants, in a united body, indignantly defended the smell.
"It ain't nothin' at all but Mis' Smelts' garbage," Mrs. Snawdor declared vehemently. "She often chucks it in a hole in the kitchen floor to save steps. Anybody'd think the way you was carryin' on, it was a murdered corpse!"
But the inspector persisted in his investigations, forcing a way into the belligerent Snawdor camp, where he found Fidy Yager with a well-developed case of smallpox. She had been down with what was thought to be chicken-pox for a week, but the other children had been sworn to secrecy under the threat that the doctor would scrape the skin off their arms with a knife if they as much as mentioned Fidy's name.
It was a culmination of a battle that had raged between Mrs. Snawdor and the health authorities for ten years, over the question of vaccination. The epidemic that followed was the visible proof of Mrs. Snawdor's victory.
Calvary Alley, having offered a standing invitation to germs in general, was loathe to regard the present one as an enemy. It resisted the inspector, who insisted on vaccinating everybody all over again; it was indignant at the headlines in the morning papers; it was outraged when Number One was put in quarantine.
Even when Fidy Yager, who "wasn't all there," and who, according to her mother, had "a fit a minute," was carried away to the pest-house, nobody was particularly alarmed. But when, twenty-four hours later, Mr. Snawdor and one of the Lavinski helpers came down with it, the alley began to look serious, and Mrs. Snawdor sent for Nance.
For six months now Nance had been living at a young women's boarding home, realizing a life-long ambition to get out of the alley. But on hearing the news, she flung a few clothes into an old suitcase and rushed to the rescue.
Since that never-to-be-forgotten day a year ago when word had reached her of Dan's marriage to Birdie Smelts, a hopeless apathy had possessed her. Even in the first weeks after his departure, when Mac's impassioned letters were pouring in and she was exerting all her will power to make good her promise to his father, she was aware of a dull, benumbing anxiety over Dan. She had tried to get his address from Mrs. Purdy, from Slap Jack's, where he still kept some of his things, from the men he knew best at the factory. Nobody could tell her where he had gone, or what he intended to do.
Just what she wanted to say to him she did not know. She still resented bitterly his mistrust of her, and what she regarded as his interference with her liberty, but she had no intention of letting matters rest as they were. She and Dan must fight the matter out to some satisfactory conclusion.
Then came the news of his marriage, shattering every hope and shaking the very foundation of her being. From her earliest remembrance Dan had been the most dependable factor in her existence. Whirlwind enthusiasms for other things and other people had caught her up from time to time, but she always came back to Dan, as one comes back to solid earth after a flight in an aeroplane.
In her first weeks of chagrin and mortification she had sought refuge in thoughts of Mac. She had slept with his unanswered letters under her pillow and clung to the memory of his ardent eyes, his gay laughter, the touch of his lips on her hands and cheeks. Had Mac come home that Christmas, her doom would have been sealed. The light by which she steered had suddenly gone out, and she could no longer distinguish the warning coast lights from the harbor lights of home.
But Mac had not come at Christmas, neither had he come in the summer, and Nance's emotional storm was succeeded by an equally intolerable calm. Back and forth from factory to boarding home she trudged day by day, and on Sunday she divided her wages with Mrs. Snawdor, on the condition that she should have a vote in the management of family affairs. By this plan Lobelia and the twins were kept at school, and Mr. Snawdor's feeble efforts at decent living were staunchly upheld.
When the epidemic broke out in Calvary Alley, and Mrs. Snawdor signaled for help, Nance responded to the cry with positive enthusiasm. Here was something stimulating at last. There was immediate work to be done, and she was the one to do it.
As she hurried up the steps of Number One, she found young Dr. Isaac Lavinski superintending the construction of a temporary door.
"You can't come in here!" he called to her, peremptorily. "We're in quarantine. I've got everybody out I can. But enough people have been exposed to it already to spread the disease all over the city. Three more cases to-night. Mrs. Smelts' symptoms are very suspicious. Dr. Adair is coming himself at nine o'clock to give instructions. It's going to be a tussle all right!"
Nance looked at him in amazement. He spoke with more enthusiasm than he had ever shown in the whole course of his life. His narrow, sallow face was full of keen excitement. Little old Ike, who had hidden under the bed in the old days whenever a fight was going on, was facing death with the eagerness of a valiant soldier on the eve of his first battle.
"I'm going to help you, Ike!" Nance cried instantly. "I've come to stay 'til it's over."
But Isaac barred the way.
"You can't come in, I tell you! I've cleared the decks for action. Not another person but the doctor and nurse are going to pass over this threshold!"
"Look here, Ike Lavinski," cried Nance, indignantly, "you know as well as me that there are things that ought to be done up there at the Snawdors'!"
"They'll have to go undone," said Isaac, firmly.
Nance wasted no more time in futile argument. She waited for an opportune moment when Ike's back was turned; then she slipped around the corner of the house and threaded her way down the dark passage, until she reached the fire-escape. There were no lights in the windows as she climbed past them, and the place seemed ominously still.
At the third platform she scrambled over a wash-tub and a dozen plaster casts of Pocahontas,--Mr. Snawdor's latest venture in industry,--and crawled through the window into the kitchen. It was evident at a glance that Mrs. Snawdor had at last found that long-talked-of day off and had utilized it in cleaning up. The room didn't look natural in its changed condition. Neither did Mrs. Snawdor, sitting in the gloom in an attitude of deep dejection. At sight of Nance at the window, she gave a cry of relief.
"Thank the Lord, you've come!" she said. "Can you beat this? Havin' to climb up the outside of yer own house like a fly! They've done sent Fidy to the pest-house, an' scattered the other childern all over the neighborhood, an' they got me fastened up here, like a hen in a coop!"
"How is he?" whispered Nance, glancing toward the inner room.
"Ain't a thing the matter with him, but the lumbago. Keeps on complainin' of a pain in his back. I never heard of such a hullabaloo about nothin' in all my life. They'll be havin' me down with smallpox next. How long you goin' to be here?"
Nance, taking off her hat and coat, announced that she had come to stay.
Mrs. Snawdor heaved a sigh of relief.
"Well, if you'll sorter keep a eye on him, I believe I'll step down an' set with Mis' Smelts fer a spell. I ain't been off the place fer two days."
"But wait a minute! Where's Uncle Jed? And Mr. Demry?"
"They 're done bounced too! Anybody tell you 'bout yer Uncle Jed's patent? They say he stands to make as much as a hundern dollars offen it. They say--"
"I don't care what they say!" cried Nance, distractedly. "Tell me, did the children take clean clothes with 'em? Did you see if Uncle Jed had his sweater? Have you washed the bedclothes that was on Fidy's bed?"
Mrs. Snawdor shook her head impatiently.
"I didn't, an' I ain't goin' to! That there Ike Lavinski ain't goin' to run me! He took my Fidy off to that there pest-house where I bet they operate her. He'll pay up fer this, you see if he don't!"
She began to cry, but as Nance was too much occupied to give audience to her grief, she betook herself to the first floor to assist in the care of Mrs. Smelts. Illness in the abode of another has a romantic flavor that home-grown maladies lack.
When Dr. Adair and Isaac Lavinski made their rounds at nine o'clock, they found Nance bending over a steaming tub, washing out a heavy comfort.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Isaac in stern surprise.
"Manicuring my finger-nails," she said, with an impudent grin, as she straightened her tired shoulders. Then seeing Dr. Adair, she blushed and wiped her hands on her apron.
"You don't remember me, Doctor, do you? I helped you with Uncle Jed Burks at the signal tower that time when the lightning struck him."
He looked her over, his glance traveling from her frank, friendly face to her strong bare arms.
"Why, yes, I do. You and your brother had been to some fancy-dress affair. I remember your red shoes. It isn't every girl of your age that could have done what you did that night. Have you been vaccinated?"
"Twice. Both took."
"She's got no business being here, sir," Isaac broke in hotly. "I told her to keep out."
"Doctor! Listen at me!" pleaded Nance, her hand on his coat sleeve. Honest to goodness, I got to stay. Mrs. Snawdor don't believe it's smallpox. She'll slip the children in when you ain't looking and go out herself and see the neighbors. Don't you see that somebody's got to be here that understands?"
"The girl's right, Lavinski," said Dr. Adair. "She knows the ropes here, and can be of great service to us. The nurse downstairs can't begin to do it all. Now let us have a look at the patient."
Little Mr. Snawdor was hardly worth looking at. He lay rigid, like a dried twig, with his eyes shut tight, and his mouth shut tight, and his hands clenched tighter still. It really seemed as if this time Mr. Snawdor was going to make good his old-time threat to quit.
Dr. Adair gave the necessary instructions; then he turned to go. He had been watching Nance, as she moved about the room carrying out his orders, and at the door he laid a hand on her shoulder.
"How old are you, my girl?" he asked.
"We need girls like you up at the hospital. Have you ever thought of taking the training?"
"Me? I haven't got enough spondulicks to take a street-car ride."
"That part can be arranged if you really want to go into the work. Think it over."
Then he and the impatient Isaac continued on their rounds, and Nance went back to her work. But the casual remark, let fall by Dr. Adair, had set her ambition soaring. Her imagination flared to the project. Snawdor's flat extended itself into a long ward; poor little Mr. Snawdor, who was hardly half a man, became a dozen; and Miss Molloy, in a becoming uniform, moved in and out among the cots, a ministering angel of mercy.
For the first time since Dan Lewis's marriage, her old courage and zest for life returned, and when Mrs. Snawdor came in at midnight, she found her sitting beside her patient with shining eyes full of waking dreams.
"Mis' Smelts is awful bad," Mrs. Snawdor reported, looking more serious than she had heretofore. "Says she wants to see you before the nurse wakes up. Seems like she's got somethin' on her mind."
Nance hurried into her coat and went out into the dark, damp hall. Long black roaches scurried out of her way as she descended the stairs. In the hall below the single gas-jet flared in the draught, causing ghostly shadows to leap out of corners and then skulk fearfully back again. Nance was not afraid, but a sudden sick loathing filled her. Was she never going to be able to get away from it all? Was that long arm of duty going to stretch out and find her wherever she went, and drag her back to this noisome spot? Were all her dreams and ambitions to die, as they had been born, in Calvary Alley?
Mrs. Smelts had been moved into an empty room across the hall from her own crowded quarters, and as Nance pushed open the door, she lifted a warning hand and beckoned.
"Shut it," she said in a hoarse whisper. "I don't want nobody to hear what I got to tell you."
"Can't it wait, Mrs. Smelts?" asked Nance, with a pitying hand on the feverish brow across which a long white scar extended.
"No. They're goin' to take me away in the mornin'. I heard 'em say so. It's about Birdie, Nance, I want to tell you. They've had to lock her up."
"It's the fever makes you think that, Mrs. Smelts. You let me sponge you off a bit."
"No, no, not yet. She's crazy, I tell you! She went out of her head last January when the baby come. Dan's kept it to hisself all this time, but now he's had to send her to the asylum."
"Who told you?"
"Dan did. He wrote me when he sent me the last money. I got his letter here under my pillow. I want you to burn it, Nance, so no one won't know."
Nance went on mechanically stroking the pain-racked head, as she reached under the pillow for Dan's letter. The sight of the neat, painstaking writing made her heart contract.
"You tell him fer me," begged Mrs. Smelts, weakly, "to be good to her. She never had the right start. Her paw handled me rough before she come, an' she was always skeery an' nervous like. But she was so purty, oh, so purty, an' me so proud of her!"
Nance wiped away the tears that trickled down the wrinkled cheeks, and tried to quiet her, but the rising fever made her talk on and on.
"I ain't laid eyes on her since a year ago this fall. She come home sick, an' nobody knew it but me. I got out of her whut was her trouble, an' I went to see his mother, but it never done no good. Then I went to the bottle factory an' tried to get his father to listen--"
"Whose father?" asked Nance, sharply.
"The Clarke boy's. It was him that did fer her. I tell you she was a good girl 'til then. But they wouldn't believe it. They give me some money to sign the paper an' not to tell; but before God it's him that's the father of her child, and poor Dan--"
But Mrs. Smelts never finished her sentence; a violent paroxysm of pain seized her, and at dawn the messenger that called for the patient on the third floor, following the usual economy practised in Calvary Alley, made one trip serve two purposes and took her also.
By the end of the month the epidemic was routed, and the alley, cleansed and chastened as it had never been before, was restored to its own. Mr. Snawdor, Fidy Yager, Mrs. Smelts, and a dozen others, being the unfittest to survive, had paid the price of enlightenment.
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