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At the corner Dan Lewis stood aside like a deposed chieftain while his companions knelt in an excited ring, engrossed in a game sanctioned by custom and forbidden by law. Even to Nance's admiring eye he looked dirtier and more ragged than usual, and his scowl deepened as she approached.
"I ain't goin'," he said.
"Yes, you are, too. Why not?" said Nance, inconsequently.
"Aw, it ain't no use."
"Ain't you been to school?"
"Yep, but I ain't goin' to that lady's house. I ain't fit."
"You got to go to take me," said Nance, diplomatically. "I don't know where Butternut Lane's at."
"You could find it, couldn't you?"
Nance didn't think she could. In fact she developed a sudden dependence wholly out of keeping with her usual self-reliance.
This seemed to complicate matters for Dan. He stood irresolutely kicking his bare heels against the curb and then reluctantly agreed to take her as far as Mrs. Purdy's gate, provided nothing more was expected of him.
Their way led across the city to a suburb, and they were hot and tired before half the distance was covered. But the expedition was fraught with interest for Nance. After the first few squares of sullen silence, Dan seemed to forget that she was merely a girl and treated her with the royal equality usually reserved for boys. So confidential did they become that she ventured to put a question to him that had been puzzling her since the events of the morning.
"Say, Dan, when anybody kills hisself, is it murder?"
"It's kinder murder. You wouldn't ketch me doin' it as long as I could get something to eat."
"You kin always git a piece of bread," said Nance.
"You bet you can't!" said Dan with conviction. "I ain't had nothin' to eat myself since yisterday noon."
"Yer maw didn't come in last night?"
"I 'spec' she went on a visit somewhere," said Dan, whose lips trembled slightly despite the stump of a cigarette that he manfully held between them.
"Couldn't you git in a window?"
"Nope; the shutters was shut. Maybe I don't wisht it was December, an' I was fourteen!"
"Sammy Smelts works an' he ain't no older'n me," said Nance. "You kin git a fake certificate fer a quarter."
Dan smiled bitterly.
"Where'm I goin' to git the quarter? They won't let me sell things on the street, or shoot craps, or work. Gee, I wisht I was rich as that Clarke boy. Ike Lavinski says he buys a quarter's worth of candy at a time! He's in Ike's room at school."
"He wasn't there yesterday," said Nance. "Uncle Jed seen him with another boy, goin' out the railroad track."
"I know it. He played hookey. He wrote a excuse an' signed his maw's name to it. Ike seen him do it. An' when the principal called up his maw this mornin' an' ast her 'bout it, she up an' said she wrote it herself."
Nance was not sure whether she was called upon to admire the astuteness of Mac or his mother, so she did not commit herself. But she was keenly interested. Ever since that day in the juvenile court she had been haunted by the memory of a trim, boyish figure arrayed in white, and by a pair of large brown eyes which disdainfully refused to glance in her direction.
"Say, Dan," she asked wistfully, "have you got a girl?"
"Naw," said Dan disdainfully, "what do I keer about girls?"
"I don't know. I thought maybe you had. I bet that there Clarke boy's got two or three."
"Let him have 'em," said Dan; then, finding the subject distasteful, he added, "what's the matter with hookin' on behind that there wagon?" And suiting the action to the word, they both went in hot pursuit.
After a few jolting squares during which Nance courted death with her flying skirts brushing the revolving wheels, the wagon turned into a side street, and they were obliged to walk again.
"I wonder if this ain't the place?" she said, as they came in sight of a low, white house half smothered in beech-trees, with a flower garden at one side, at the end of which was a vine-covered summer-house.
"Here's where I beat it!" said Dan, but before he could make good his intention, the stout little lady on the porch had spied them and came hurrying down the walk, holding out both hands.
"Well, if here aren't my probationers!" she cried in a warm, comfortable voice which seemed to suggest that probationers were what she liked best in the world.
"Let me see, dear, your name is Mac?"
"No, ma'am, it's Dan," said that youth, trying to put out the lighted cigarette stump which he had hastily thrust into his pocket.
"Ah! to be sure! And yours is--Mary?"
"No, ma'am, it's Nance."
"Why, of course!" cried the little lady, beaming at them, "I remember perfectly."
She was scarcely taller than they were as she walked between them, with an arm about the shoulder of each. She wore a gray dress and a wide white collar pinned with a round blue pin that just matched her round blue eyes. On each side of her face was a springy white curl that bobbed up and down as she walked.
"Now," she said, with an expectant air, when they reached the house. "Where shall we begin? Something to eat?"
Her question was directed to Dan, and he flushed hotly.
"No, ma'am," he said proudly.
"Yes, ma'am," said Nance, almost in the same breath.
"I vote 'Yes,' too; so the ayes have it," said Mrs. Purely gaily, leading them through a neat hall into a neat kitchen, where they solemnly took their seats.
"My visitors always help me with the lemonade," said the purring little lady, giving Nance the lemons to roll, and Dan the ice to crack. Then as she fluttered about, she began to ask them vague and seemingly futile questions about home and school and play. Gradually their answers grew from monosyllables into sentences, until, by the time the lemonade was ready to serve, Nance was completely thawed out and Dan was getting soft around the edges. Things were on the way to positive conviviality when Mrs. Purdy suddenly turned to Nance and asked her where she went to Sunday school.
Now Sunday school had no charms for Nance. On the one occasion when curiosity had induced her to follow the stream of well-dressed children into the side door of the cathedral, she had met with disillusion. It was a place where little girls lifted white petticoats when they sat down and straightened pink sashes when they got up, and put nickels in a basket. Nance had had no lace petticoat or pink sash or nickel. She showed her discomfort by misbehaving.
"Didn't you ever go back?" asked Mrs. Purdy.
"Nome. They didn't want me. I was bad, an' the teacher said Sunday school was a place for good little girls."
"My! my!" said Mrs. Purdy, "this will never do. And how about you, Dan? Do you go?"
"Sometimes I've went," said Dan. "I like it."
While this conversation was going on Nance could not keep her eyes from the open door. There was more sky and grass out there than she had ever seen at one time before. The one green spot with which she was familiar was the neat plot of lawn on each side of the concrete walk leading into the cathedral, and that had to be viewed through a chink in the fence and was associated with the words, "Keep Out."
When all the lemonade was gone, and only one cookie left for politeness, Mrs. Purdy took them into the sitting-room where a delicate-looking man sat in a wheel-chair, carving something from a piece of wood. Nance's quick eyes took in every detail of the bright, commonplace room; its gay, flowered carpet and chintz curtains, its "fruit pieces" in wide, gold frames, and its crocheted tidies presented a new ideal of elegance.
There was a music-box on the wall in which small figures moved about to a tinkling melody; there were charm strings of bright colored buttons, and a spinning-wheel, and a pair of bellows, all of which Mrs. Purdy explained at length.
"Sister," said the man in the chair, feebly, "perhaps the children would like to see my menagerie."
"Why, dearie, of course they would," said Mrs. Purdy, "Shall I wheel you over to the cabinet?"
"I'll shove him," said Dan, making his first voluntary remark.
"There now!" said Mrs. Purdy, "see how much stronger he is than I am! And he didn't jolt you a bit, did he, dearie?"
If the room itself was interesting, the cabinet was nothing short of entrancing. It was full of carved animals in all manner of grotesque positions. And the sick gentleman knew the name of each and kept saying such funny things about them that Nance laughed hilariously, and Dan forgot the prints of his muddy feet on the bright carpet, and even gave up the effort to keep his hand over the ragged knee of his pants.
"He knows all about live animals, too," chirped Mrs. Purdy. "You'll have to come some day and go over to the park with us and see his squirrels. There's one he found with a broken leg, and he mended it as good as new."
The sun was slipping behind the trees before the children even thought of going home.
"Next Friday at three!" said Mrs. Purdy, cheerily waving them good-by. "And we are going to see who has the cleanest face and the best report."
"We sure had a good time," said Nance, as they hurried away through the dusk. "But I'll git a lickin' all right when I git home."
"I liked that there animal man," said Dan slowly, "an' them cookies."
"Well, whatever made you lie to the lady 'bout bein' hungry?"
"I never lied. She ast me if I wanted her to give me somethin' to eat. I thought she meant like a beggar. I wasn't goin' to take it that way, but I never minded takin' it like--like--company."
Nance pondered the matter for a while silently; then she asked suddenly:
"Say, Dan, if folks are borned poor white trash, they don't have to go on bein' it, do they?"
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