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The Lavinskis' flat on the second floor had always possessed a mysterious fascination for Nance. In and out of the other flats she passed at will, but she had never seen beyond the half-open door of the Lavinskis'. All day and far into the night, the sewing-machines ran at high pressure, and Mr. Lavinski shuffled in and out carrying huge piles of pants on his head. The other tenants stopped on the stairs to exchange civilities or incivilities with equal warmth; they hung out of windows or dawdled sociably in doorways. But summer and winter alike the Lavinskis herded behind closed doors and ran their everlasting sewing-machines.
Mrs. Snawdor gave her ready consent to Nance trying her hand as a "home finisher."
"We got to git money from somewheres," she said, "an' I always did want to know how them Polocks live. But don't you let on to your Uncle Jed what you're doing."
"I ain't goin' to let on to nobody," said Nance, thrilled with the secrecy of the affair.
The stifling room into which Ikey introduced her that night was supposed to be the Lavinskis' kitchen, but it was evident that the poor room had long ago abandoned all notions of domesticity. The tea-kettle had been crowded off the stove by the pressing irons; a wash-tub full of neglected clothes, squeezed itself into a distant corner, and the cooking utensils had had to go climbing up the walls on hooks and nails to make way on the shelves for sewing materials.
On one corner of the table, between two towering piles of pants, were the remains of the last meal, black bread, potatoes, and pickled herring. Under two swinging kerosene lamps, six women with sleeves rolled up and necks bared, bent over whirring machines, while Mr. Lavinski knelt on the floor tying the finished garments into huge bundles.
"Here's Nance Molloy, Pa" said Ikey, raising his voice above the noise of the machines and tugging at his father's sleeve.
Mr. Lavinski pushed his derby hat further back on his perspiring brow, and looked up. He had a dark, sharp face, and alert black eyes, exactly like Ikey's, and a black beard with two locks of black hair trained down in front of his ears to meet it. Without pausing in his work he sized Nance up.
"I von't take childern anny more. I tried it many times already. De inspector git me into troubles. It don't pay."
"But I'll dodge the inspectors," urged Nance.
"You know how to sew, eh?"
"No; but you kin learn me. Please, Mr. Lavinski, Ikey said you would."
Mr. Lavinski bestowed a doting glance on his son.
"My Ikey said so, did he? He thinks he own me, that boy. I send him to high school. I send him to Hebrew class at the synagogue at night. He vill be big rich some day, that boy; he's got a brain on him."
"Cut it out, Pa," said Ikey, "Nance is a smart kid; you won't lose anything on her."
The result was that Nance was accorded the privilege of occupying a stool in the corner behind the hot stove and sewing buttons on knee pantaloons, from eight until ten P.M. At first the novelty of working against time, with a room full of grown people, and of seeing the great stacks of unfinished garments change into great stacks of finished ones, was stimulation in itself. She was proud of her cushion full of strong needles and her spool of coarse thread. She was pleased with the nods of approval gentle Mrs. Lavinski gave her work in passing, and of the slight interest with which she was regarded by the other workers.
But as the hours wore on, and the air became hotter and closer, and no enlivening conversation came to relieve the strain, her interest began to wane. By nine o'clock her hands were sore and stained, and her back ached. By a quarter past, the buttons were slipping through her fingers, and she could not see to thread her needle.
"You vill do better to-morrow night," said Mrs. Lavinski kindly, in her wheezing voice. "I tell Ikey you do verra good."
Mrs. Lavinski looked shriveled and old. She wore a glossy black wig and long ear-rings, and when she was not coughing, she smiled pleasantly over her work. Once Mr. Lavinski stopped pressing long enough to put a cushion at her back.
"My Leah is a saint," he said. "If effra'boddy was so good as her, the Messiah would come."
Nance dreamed of buttons that night, and by the next evening her ambition to become a wage-earner had died completely.
But a family conclave at the supper table revealed such a crisis in the family finances that she decided to keep on at the Lavinskis' for another week. Uncle Jed was laid up with the rheumatism, and Mr. Snawdor's entire stock in trade had been put in a wheelbarrow and dumped into the street, and a strange sign already replaced his old one of "Bungs and Fawcetts."
Things seemed in such a bad way that Nance had about decided to lay the matter before Mrs. Purdy, when Dan brought the disconcerting news that Mrs. Purdy had taken her brother south for the rest of the winter, and that there would be no more visits to the little house in Butternut Lane.
So Nance, not knowing anything better to do, continued to sit night after night on her stool behind the hot stove, sewing on buttons. Thirty-six buttons meant four cents, four cents meant a loaf of bread--a stale loaf, that is.
"Your little fingers vill git ofer bein' sore," Mrs. Lavinski assured her. "I gif you alum water to put on 'em. Dat makes 'em hard."
They not only became hard; they became quick and accurate, and Nance got used to the heat and the smell, and she almost got used to the backache. It was sitting still and being silent that hurt her more than anything else. Mr. Lavinski did not encourage conversation,--it distracted the workers,--and Nance's exuberance, which at first found vent in all sorts of jokes and capers, soon died for lack of encouragement. She learned, instead, to use all her energy on buttons and, being denied verbal expression, she revolved many things in her small mind. The result of her thinking was summed up in her speech to her stepmother at the end of the first week.
"Gee! I'm sick of doin' the same thing! I ain't learnin' nothin'. If anybody was smart, they could make a machine to put on two times as many buttons as me in half the time. I want to begin something at the beginning and make it clean through. I'm sick an' tired of buttons. I'm goin' to quit!"
But Mrs. Snawdor had come to a belated realization of the depleted state of the family treasury and she urged Nance to keep on for the present.
"We better cut all the corners we kin," she said, "till Snawdor gits over this fit of the dumps. Ain't a reason in the world he don't go into the junk business. I ain't astin' him to drive aroun' an' yell 'Old iron!' I know that's tryin' on a bashful man. All I ast him is to set still an' let it come to him. Thank the Lord, I have known husbands that wasn't chicken-hearted!"
So Nance kept on reluctantly, even after Mr. Snawdor got a small job collecting. Sometimes she went to sleep over her task and had to be shaken awake, but that was before she began to drink black coffee with the other workers at nine o'clock.
One thing puzzled her. When Ikey came from night school, he was never asked to help in the work, no matter how much his help was needed. He was always given the seat by the table nearest the lamp, and his father himself cleared a place for his books.
"Ikey gits the education," Mr. Lavinski would say, with a proud smile. "The Rabbi says he is the smartest boy in the class. He takes prizes over big boys. Ve vork fer him now, an' some day he make big money an' take care of us!"
Education as seen through Mr. Lavinski's eyes took on a new aspect for Nance. It seemed that you did not get rich by going to work at fourteen, but by staying at school and in some miraculous way skipping the factory altogether. "I vork with my hands," said Mr. Lavinski; "my Ikey, he vorks with his head."
Nance fell into the way of bringing her school books downstairs at night and getting Ike to help her with her lessons. She would prop the book in front of her and, without lessening the speed of her flying fingers, ply him with the questions that had puzzled her during the day.
"I wisht I was smart as you!" she said one night.
"I reckon you do!" said Ike. "I work for it."
"You couldn't work no more 'n whut I do!" Nance said indignantly.
"There's a difference between working and being worked," said Ike, wisely. "If I were you, I'd look out for number one."
"But who would do the cookin' an' lookin' after the kids, an' all?"
"They are nothing to you," said Ike; "none of the bunch is kin to you. Catch me workin' for them like you do!"
Nance was puzzled, but not convinced. Wiser heads than hers have struggled with a similar problem in vain. She kept steadily on, and it was only when the squeak of Mr. Demry's fiddle came up from below that her fingers fumbled and the buttons went rolling on the floor. Six nights in the week, when Mr. Demry was in condition, he played at the theater, and on Sunday nights he stayed at home and received his young friends. On these occasions Nance became so restless that she could scarcely keep her prancing feet on the floor. She would hook them resolutely around the legs of the stool and even sit on them one at a time, but despite all her efforts, they would respond to the rhythmic notes below.
"Them tunes just make me dance settin' down," she declared, trying to suit the action to the words.
Sometimes on a rainy afternoon when nobody was being born, or getting married, or dying, Mrs. Snawdor stayed at home. At such times Nance seized the opportunity to shift her domestic burden.
There was a cheap theater, called "The Star," around the corner, where a noisy crowd of boys and girls could always be found in the gallery. It was a place where you ate peanuts and dropped the shells on the heads of people below, where you scrapped for your seat and joined in the chorus and shrieked over the antics of an Irishman, a darkey, or a Jew. But it was a luxury seldom indulged in, for it cost the frightful sum of ten cents, not including the peanuts.
For the most part Nance's leisure half-hours were spent with Mr. Demry, discussing a most exciting project. He was contemplating the unheard-of festivity of a Christmas party, and the whole alley was buzzing with it. Even the big boys in Dan's gang were going to take part. There were to be pirates and fairies and ogres, and Nance was to be the princess and do a fancy dance in a petticoat trimmed with silver paper, and wear a tinsel crown.
Scrubbing the floor, figuring on the blackboard, washing dishes, or sewing on buttons, she was aware of that tinsel crown. For one magic night it was going to transform her into a veritable princess, and who knew but that a prince in doublet and hose and sweeping plume might arrive to claim her? But when Nance's imagination was called upon to visualize the prince, a hateful image came to her of a tall, slender boy, clad in white, with a contemptuous look in his handsome brown eyes.
"I don't know what ails Nance these days," Mrs. Snawdor complained to Uncle Jed. "She sasses back if you look at her, an' fergits everything, an' Snawdor says she mutters an' jabbers something awful in her sleep."
"Seems to me she works too hard," said Uncle Jed, still ignorant of her extra two hours in the sweat-shop. "A growin' girl oughtn't to be doin' heavy washin' an' carryin' water an' coal up two flights."
"Why, Nance is strong as a ox," Mrs. Snawdor insisted, "an' as fer eatin'! Why it looks like she never can git filled up."
"Well, what ails her then?" persisted Uncle Jed.
"I bet I know!" said Mrs. Snawdor darkly. "It's that there vaccination. Las' time I hid the other childern from the inspector she had to come out an' argue with him fer herself. She got paid up proper fer givin' in to him. Her arm was a plumb sight."
"Do you suppose it's the poison still workin' on her?" Uncle Jed asked, watching Nance in the next room as she lifted a boiler filled with the washing water from the stove.
"Why, of course, it is! Talk to me about yer State rules an' regerlations! It does look like us poor people has got troubles enough already, without rich folks layin' awake nights studyin' up what they can do to us next."
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