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After Nance Molloy's first visit to Butternut Lane, life became a series of thrilling discoveries. Hitherto she had been treated collectively. At home she was "one of the Snawdor kids"; to the juvenile world beyond the corner she was "a Calvary Alley mick"; at school she was "a pupil of the sixth grade." It remained for little Mrs. Purdy to reveal the fact to her that she was an individual person.
Mrs. Purdy had the most beautiful illusions about everything. She seemed to see her fellow-men not as they were, but as God intended them to be. She discovered so many latent virtues and attractions in her new probationers that they scarcely knew themselves.
When, for instance, she made the startling observation that Nance had wonderful hair, and that, if she washed it with an egg and brushed it every day, it would shine like gold, Nance was interested, but incredulous. Until now hair had meant a useless mass of tangles that at long intervals was subjected to an agonizing process of rebraiding. The main thing about hair was that it must never on any account be left hanging down one's back. Feuds had been started and battles lost by swinging braids. The idea of washing it was an entirely new one to her; but the vision of golden locks spurred her on to try the experiment. She carefully followed directions, but the egg had been borrowed from Mrs. Smelts who had borrowed it some days before from Mrs. Lavinski, and the result was not what Mrs. Purdy predicted.
"If ever I ketch you up to sech fool tricks again," scolded Mrs. Snawdor, who had been called to the rescue, "I'll skin yer hide off! You've no need to take yer hair down except when I tell you. You kin smooth it up jus' like you always done."
Having thus failed in her efforts at personal adornment, Nance turned her attention to beautifying her surroundings. The many new features observed in the homely, commonplace house in Butternut Lane stirred her ambition. Her own room, to be sure, possessed architectural defects that would have discouraged most interior decorators. It was small and dark, with only one narrow opening into an air-shaft. Where the plaster had fallen off, bare laths were exposed, and in rainy weather a tin tub occupied the center of the floor to catch the drippings from a hole in the roof. For the rest, a slat bed, an iron wash-stand, and a three-legged chair comprised the furniture.
But Nance was not in the least daunted by the prospect. With considerable ingenuity she evolved a dresser from a soap box and the colored supplements of the Sunday papers, which she gathered into a valance, in imitation of Mrs. Purdy's bright chintz. In the air-shaft window she started three potato vines in bottles, but not satisfied with the feeble results, she pinned red paper roses to the sickly white stems. The nearest substitutes she could find for pictures were labels off tomato cans, and these she tacked up with satisfaction, remembering Mrs. Purdy's admired fruit pictures.
"'Tain't half so dark in here as 'tis down in Smeltses," she bragged to Fidy, who viewed her efforts with pessimism. "Once last summer the sun come in here fer purty near a week. It shined down the shaft. You ast Lobelia if it didn't."
Nance was nailing a pin into the wall with the heel of her slipper, and the loose plaster was dropping behind the bed.
"Mis' Purdy says if I don't say no cuss words, an' wash meself all over on Wednesdays and Sat'days, she's goin' to help me make myself a new dress!"
"Why don't she give you one done made?" asked Fidy.
"She ain't no charity lady!" said Nance indignantly. "Me an' her's friends. She said we was."
"What's she goin' to give Dan?" asked Fidy, to whom personages from the upper world were interesting only when they bore gifts in their hands.
"She ain't givin' him nothin', Silly! She's lettin' him help her. He gits a quarter a hour, an' his dinner fer wheelin' Mr. Walter in the park."
"They say Mr. Jack's give him a room over the saloon 'til his maw comes back."
"I reckon I know it. I made him! You jus' wait 'til December when Dan'll be fourteen. Once he gits to work he won't have to take nothin' offen nobody!"
School as well as home took on a new interest under Mrs. Purdy's influence. Shoes and textbooks appeared almost miraculously, and reports assumed a new and exciting significance. Under this new arrangement Dan blossomed into a model of righteousness, but Nance's lapses from grace were still frequent. The occasional glimpses she was getting of a code of manners and morals so different from those employed by her stepmother, were not of themselves sufficient to reclaim her. On the whole she found being good rather stupid and only consented to conform to rules when she saw for herself the benefit to be gained.
For instance, when she achieved a burning desire to be on the honor roll and failed on account of being kept at home, she took the matter into her own small hands and reported herself to the once despised truant officer. The result was a stormy interview between him and her stepmother which removed all further cause of jealousy on the part of Mr. Snawdor, and gave Nance a record for perfect attendance.
Having attained this distinction, she was fired to further effort. She could soon glibly say the multiplication tables backward, repeat all the verses in her school reader, and give the names and length of the most important rivers in the world. On two occasions she even stepped into prominence. The first was when she electrified a visiting trustee by her intimate knowledge of the archipelagos of the eastern hemisphere. The fact that she had not the remotest idea of the nature of an archipelago was mercifully not divulged. The second had been less successful. It was during a visit of Bishop Bland's to the school. He was making a personal investigation concerning a report, then current, that public school children were underfed. Bishop Bland was not fond of children, but he was sensitive to any slight put upon the stomach, and he wished very much to be able to refute the disturbing rumor.
"Now I cannot believe," he said to the sixth grade, clasping his plump hands over the visible result of many good dinners, "that any one of you nice boys and girls came here this morning hungry. I want any boy in the room who is not properly nourished at home to stand up."
Nobody rose, and the bishop cast an affirmative smile on the principal.
"As I thought," he continued complacently. "Now I'm going to ask any little girl in this room to stand up and tell us just exactly what she had for breakfast. I shall not be in the least surprised if it was just about what I had myself."
There was a silence, and it began to look as if nobody was going to call the bishop's bluff, when Nance jumped up from a rear seat and said at the top of her voice:
"A pretzel and a dill pickle!"
The new-found enthusiasm for school might have been of longer duration had it not been for a counter-attraction at home. From that first night when old "Mr. Demry," as he had come to be called, had played for her to dance, Nance had camped on his door-step. Whenever the scrape of his fiddle was heard from below, she dropped whatever she held, whether it was a hot iron or the baby, and never stopped until she reached the ground floor. And by and by other children found their way to him, not only the children of the tenement, but of the whole neighborhood as well. It was soon noised abroad that he knew how to coax the fairies out of the woods and actually into the shadows of Calvary Alley where they had never been heard of before. With one or two children on his knees and a circle on the floor around him, he would weave a world of dream and rainbows, and people it with all the dear invisible deities of childhood. And while he talked, his thin cheeks would flush, and his dim eyes shine with the same round wonder as his listeners.
But some nights when the children came, they found him too sleepy to tell stories or play on the fiddle. At such times he always emptied his pockets of small coins and sent the youngsters scampering away to find the pop-corn man. Then he would stand unsteadily at the door and watch them go, with a wistful, disappointed look on his tired old face.
Nance overheard her elders whispering that "he took something," and she greatly feared that he would meet a fate similar to that of Joe Smelts. In Joe's case it was an overcoat, and he had been forced to accept the hospitality of the State for thirty days. Nance's mind was greatly relieved to find that it was only powders that Mr. Demry took--powders that made him walk queer and talk queer and forget sometimes where he lived. Then it was that the children accepted him as their special charge. They would go to his rescue wherever they found him and guide his wandering footsteps into the haven of Calvary Alley.
"He's a has-benn," Mrs. Snawdor declared to Uncle Jed. "You an' me are never-wases, but that old gent has seen better days. They tell me that settin' down in the orchestry, he looks fine. That's the reason his coat's always so much better'n his shoes an' pants; he dresses up the part of him that shows. You can tell by the way he acts an' talks that he's different from us."
Perhaps that was the reason, that while Nance loved Uncle Jed quite as much, she found Mr. Demry far more interesting. Everything about him was different, from his ideas concerning the proper behavior of boys and girls, to his few neatly distributed belongings. His two possessions that most excited her curiosity and admiration, were the violin and its handsome old rosewood case, which you were not allowed to touch, and a miniature in a frame of gold, of a beautiful pink and white girl in a pink and white dress, with a fair curl falling over her bare shoulder. Nance would stand before the latter in adoring silence; then she would invariably say:
"Go on an' tell me about her, Mr. Demry!"
And standing behind her, with his fine sensitive hands on her shoulders, Mr. Demry would tell wonderful stories of the little girl who had once been his. And as he talked, the delicate profile in the picture became an enchanting reality to Nance, stirring her imagination and furnishing an object for her secret dreams.
Hitherto Birdie Smelts had been her chief admiration. Birdie was fourteen and wore French heels and a pompadour and had beaux. She had worked in the ten-cent store until her misplaced generosity with the glass beads on her counter resulted in her being sent to a reformatory. But Birdie's bold attractions suffered in comparison with the elusive charm of the pink and white goddess with the golden curl.
This change marked the dawn of romance in Nance's soul. Up to this time she had demanded of Mr. Demry the most "scareful" stories he knew, but from now on Blue Beard and Jack, the Giant-Killer had to make way for Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty. She went about with her head full of dreams, and eyes that looked into an invisible world. It was not that the juvenile politics of the alley were less interesting, or the street fights or adventures of the gang less thrilling. It was simply that life had become absorbingly full of other things.
As the months passed Mrs. Snawdor spent less and less time at home. She seemed to think that when she gave her nights on her knees for her family, she was entitled to use the remaining waking hours for recreation. This took the form of untiring attention to other people's business. She canvassed the alley for delinquent husbands to admonish, for weddings to arrange, for funerals to supervise--the last being a specialty, owing to experience under the late Mr. Yager.
Upon one of the occasions when she was superintending the entrance of a neighboring baby into the world, her own made a hurried exit. A banana and a stick of licorice proved too stimulating a diet for him, and he closed his eyes permanently on a world that had offered few attractions.
It was Nance who, having mothered him from his birth, worked with him through the long night of agony; and who, when the end came, cut the faded cotton flowers from her hat to put in the tiny claw-like hand that had never touched a real blossom; and it was Nance's heart that broke when they took him away.
It is doubtful whether any abstract moral appeal could have awakened her as did the going out of that little futile life. It stirred her deepest sympathies and affections, and connected her for the first time with the forces that make for moral and social progress.
"He wouldn't a-went if we'd treated him right!" she complained bitterly to Mr. Snawdor a week later. "He never had no sunshine, nor fresh air, nor nothin'. You can't expect a baby to live where a sweet-potato vine can't!"
"He's better off than me," said Mr. Snawdor, "what with the funeral, an' the coal out, an' the rent due, I'm at the end of my rope. I told her it was comin'. But she would have a white coffin an' six hacks. They'll have to set us out in the street fer all I can see!"
Nance looked at him apprehensively.
"Well, we better be doin' something'," she said. "Can't Uncle Jed help us?"
"I ain't goin' to let him. He's paid my rent fer the last time."
This unexpected flare of independence in Mr. Snawdor was disturbing. The Snawdor family without Uncle Jed was like a row of stitches from which the knitting needle has been withdrawn.
"If I was two years older, I could go to work," said Nance, thinking of Dan, who was now on the pay-roll of Clarke's Bottle Factory.
"It ain't right to make you stop school," said Mr. Snawdor. "It ain't bein' fair to you."
"I'd do it all right," said Nance, fired by his magnanimity, "only they're on to me now I've reported myself. Ain't you makin' any money at the shop?"
Mr. Snawdor shook his head.
"I might if I was willin' to buy junk. But you know where them boys gets their stuff."
Nance nodded wisely.
"The gang bust into a empty house last night an' cut out all the lead pipes. I seen 'em comin' home with it."
Mr. Snawdor rose and went to the window.
"There ain't no chance fer a honest man," he said miserably. "I'm sick o' livin', that's whut I am. I am ready to quit."
When Mrs. Snawdor arrived, she swept all domestic problems impatiently aside.
"Fer goodness' sake don't come tellin' me no more hard-luck tales. Ain't I got troubles enough of my own? Nance, soon 's you git through, go git me a bucket of beer, an' if you see any of the Gormans, say I'll stop in this evenin' on my way to work."
"I ain't goin' fer the beer no more," announced Nance.
"An' will ye tell me why?" asked Mrs. Snawdor.
"'Cause I ain't," said Nance, knowing the futility of argument.
Mrs. Snawdor lifted her hand to strike, but changed her mind. She was beginning to have a certain puzzled respect for her stepdaughter's decision of character.
After the children had been put to bed and Nance had cried over the smallest nightgown, no longer needed, she slipped down to the second floor and, pausing before the door behind which the sewing-machines were always whirring, gave a peculiar whistle. It was a whistle possible only to a person who boasted the absence of a front tooth, and it brought Ike Lavinski promptly to the door.
Ikey was a friend whom she regarded with mingled contempt and admiration--contempt because he was weak and undersized, admiration because he was the only person of her acquaintance who had ever had his name in the newspaper. On two occasions he had been among the honor students at the high school, and his family and neighbors regarded him as an intellectual prodigy.
"Say, Ikey," said Nance, "if you was me, an' had to make some money, an' didn't want to chuck school, what would you do?"
Ikey considered the matter. Money and education were the most important things in the world to him, and were not to be discussed lightly.
"If you were bigger," he said, sweeping her with a critical eye, "you might try sewing pants."
"Could I do it at night? How much would it pay me? Would yer pa take me on?" Nance demanded all in a breath.
"He would if he thought they wouldn't get on to it."
"I'd keep it dark," Nance urged. "I could slip down every night after I git done my work, an' put in a couple of hours, easy. I'm a awful big child fer my age--feel my muscle! Go on an' make him take me on, Ikey, will you?"
And Ikey condescendingly agreed to use his influence.
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