Chapter VI. A Theater Party
 
    "The play, the play's the thing!"

Billy's foreign policy proved most satisfactory, and after the annexation of Cuba many additional dimes found their way into the tin box on top of the wardrobe. But it took them all, besides Mrs. Wiggs's earnings, to keep the family from the awful calamity of "pulling agin a debt."

One cold December day Billy came in and found his mother leaning wearily on the table. Her face brightened as he entered, but he caught the tired look in her eyes.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"Ain't nothin' the matter, Billy," she said, trying to speak cheerfully; "I'm jes' wore out, that's all. It'll be with me like it was with Uncle Ned's ole ox, I reckon; he kep' a-goin' an' a-goin' till he died a-standin' up, an' even then they had to push him over."

She walked to the window, and stood gazing absently across the commons. "Do you know, Billy," she said suddenly, "I 've got the craziest notion in my head. I'd jes' give anythin' to see the show at the Opery House this week."

If she had expressed a wish for a diamond necklace, Billy could not have been more amazed, and his countenance expressed his state of mind. Mrs. Wiggs hastened to explain:

"Course, I ain't really thinkin' 'bout goin', but them show-bills started me to studyin' about it, an' I got to wishin' me an' you could go."

"I don't 'spect it's much when you git inside," said Billy, trying the effects of negative consolation.

"Yes, 't is, Billy Wiggs," answered his mother, impressively. "You ain't never been inside a theayter, an' I have. I was there twict, an' it was grand! You orter see the lights an' fixin's, an' all the fine ladies an' their beaus. First time I went they was a man in skin-tights a-walkin' on a rope h'isted 'way up over ever'body's head."

"What's skin-tights?" asked Billy, thrilled in spite of himself.

"It's spangles 'round yer waist, an' shoes without no heels to 'em. You see, the man couldn't wear many clothes, 'cause it would make him too heavy to stay up there in the air. The band plays all the time, an' folks sing an' speechify, an' ever'body laughs an' has a good time. It's jes' grand, I tell you!"

Billy's brows were puckered, and he sat unusually quiet for a while, looking at his mother. Finally he said: "You might take my snow-money from las' week."

Mrs. Wiggs was indignant. "Why, Billy Wiggs!" she exclaimed, "do you think I'd take an' go to a show, when Asia an' Australia ain't got a good shoe to their backs?"

Billy said no more about the theater, but that afternoon, when he was out with the kindling, he pondered the matter deeply. It was quite cold, and sometimes he had to put the reins between his knees and shove his hands deep into his pockets to get the stiffness out of them. It really seemed as if everybody had just laid in a supply of kindling, and the shadowy little plan he had been forming was growing more shadowy all the time.

"I 'spect the tickets cost a heap," he thought ruefully, as he drew himself up into a regular pretzel of a boy; "but, then, she never does have no fun, an' never gits a thing fer herself." And because Billy knew of his mother's many sacrifices, and because he found it very hard to take Jim's place, a lump lodged in his throat, and gave him so much trouble that he forgot for a while how cold he was.

About this time he came within sight of the Opera House, and tantalizing posters appeared of the "Greatest Extravaganza of the Century." He pulled Cuba into a walk, and sat there absorbing the wonders depicted; among the marvels were crowds of children dressed as butterflies, beautiful ladies marching in line, a man balancing a barrel on his feet, and--yes, there was the man in "skin-tights" walking on the rope!

A keen puff of wind brought Billy back to his senses, and as his longing eyes turned from the gorgeous show-bills they encountered the amused look of a gentleman who had just come out from the Opera House. He was so tall and fine-looking that Billy thought he must own the show.

"Some kindlin', sir?"

The gentleman shook his head. The posters still danced before Billy's eyes; if his mother could only see the show! The last chance seemed slipping away. Suddenly a bold idea presented itself. He got out of the wagon, and came up on the step.

"Couldn't you use a whole load, if I was to take it out in tickets?"

The man looked puzzled. "Take it out in tickets?" he repeated.

"Yes, sir," said Billy, "theayter tickets. Don't you own the show?"

The gentleman laughed. "Well, hardly," he said. "What do you want with more than one ticket?"

There was a certain sympathy in his voice, in spite of the fact that he was still laughing, and before Billy knew it he had told him all about it.

"How many tickets could yer gimme fer the load?" he asked, in conclusion.

The gentleman made a hurried calculation. "You say you have three sisters?" he asked.

"Yep," said Billy.

"Well, I should say that load was worth about five tickets."

"Gee whiz!" cried the boy; "that 'ud take us all!"

He followed the gentleman back to the ticket-office, and eagerly watched the man behind the little window count out five tickets and put them in a pink envelope.

"One for you, one for your mother, and three for the kids," said his friend, as Billy buttoned the treasure in the inside pocket of his ragged coat.

He was so excited that he almost forgot his part of the bargain, but as the gentleman was turning away he remembered.

"Say, mister, where must I take the kindlin' to?"

"Oh, that's all right; you can sell it to-morrow," answered the other.

Billy's face fell instantly. "If you don't take the kindlin', I'll have to give you back the tickets. Ma don't 'low us to take nothin' that way."

"But I don't need the kindling; haven't any place to put it."

"Ain't you got no home?" asked Billy, incredulously.

"No," answered the man, shortly.

The idea of any one, in any walk of life, not having use for kindling was a new one to Billy. But he had no time to dwell on it, for this new complication demanded all his attention.

"Ain't there nobody you could give it to?" he asked.

The gentleman was growing impatient. "No, no; go along; that's all right."

But Billy knew it would not be all right when he got home, so he made one more effort. "How'd you like to send it out to Miss Hazy?" he inquired.

"Well, Miss Hazy, not having the pleasure of my acquaintance, might object to the delicate attention. Who is she?"

"She's Chris's aunt; they ain't had no fire fer two days."

"Oh!" said the man, heartily, "take it to Miss Hazy, by all means. Tell her it's from Mr. Bob, who is worse off than she is, for he hasn't even a home."

An hour later there was wild excitement under the only tin roof in the Cabbage Patch. Such scrubbing and brushing as was taking place!

"It's jes' like a peetrified air-castle," said Mrs. Wiggs, as she pressed out Asia's best dress; "here I been thinkin' 'bout it, an' wantin' to go, an' here I am actually gittin' ready to go! Come here, child, and let me iron out yer plaits while the iron's good an' hot."

This painful operation was performed only on state occasions; each little Wiggs laid her head on the ironing-board, a willing sacrifice on the altar of vanity, while Mrs. Wiggs carefully ironed out five plaits on each head. Europena was the only one who objected to being a burnt-offering, but when she saw the frizzled locks of the others, her pride conquered her fear, and, holding tight to Billy's hand, she bent her chubby head to the trying ordeal.

"Now, Billy, you run over to Mrs. Eichorn's an' ast her to loan me her black crepe veil. Mrs. Krasmier borrowed it yesterday to wear to her pa's funeral, but I guess she's sent it back by this time. An', Billy--Billy, wait a minute; you be sure to tell 'em we are goin' to the show." Mrs. Wiggs vigorously brushed her hair with the clothes-brush as she spoke. Australia had thrown the hair-brush down the cistern the summer before.

"Asia, you go git the alpaca from behind the chest, an' sorter shake it out on the bed."

"Who's goin' to wear it, ma?" The question came in anxious tones, for the blue alpaca had been sent them in a bundle of old clothes, and though it failed to fit either of the girls, the wearing of it was a much coveted privilege.

"Well, now, I don't know," said Mrs. Wiggs, critically surveying the children; "it won't button good on you, and swags in the back on Australia."

"Lemme wear it, ma!"

"No, lemme!" came in excited tones.

Mrs. Wiggs had seen trouble before over the blue alpaca; she knew what anguish her decision must bring to one or the other.

"It really looks best on Asia," she thought; "but if I let her wear it Austry'll have a cryin' spell an' git to holdin' her breath, an' that'll take up so much time." So she added aloud: "I'll tell you what we'll do. Asia, you kin wear the skirt, an' Austry kin wear the waist."

But when she had pinned the skirt over one little girl's red calico dress, and buttoned the blue waist over the clean apron of the other, she looked at them dubiously. "They do look kinder mixed," she admitted to herself, "but I reckon it don't matter, so long as they 're both happy."

Just here Billy came in, with the veil in one hand and a bunch of faded carnations in the other.

"Look, ma!" he exclaimed, holding up his trophy, "I swapped 'em with Pete fer a top an' a agate. He got 'em outen a ash-barrel over on the avenue."

"Well, now, ain't that nice?" said Mrs. Wiggs; "I'll jes' clip the stems an' put 'em in a bottle of water, an' they'll pick up right smart by the time we go. I wisht you had something to fix up in, Billy," she added; "you look as seedy as a raspberry."

Billy did look rather shabby; his elbows were out, and two of the holes in his pants were patched and two were not. Mrs. Wiggs was rummaging in the table drawer.

"I wisht I could find somethin' of yer pa's that would do. Here's his white gloves he wore that time he was pallbearer to ole Mr. Bender. Seems to me they do wear white gloves to the theayter, but I disremember."

"Naw! I ain't a-goin' to wear no gloves," said Billy, firmly.

Mrs. Wiggs continued her search. "Here's yer grandpa's watch-fob, but I'm skeered fer you to wear it, you might lose it. It's a family remnant--been handed down two generations. What about this here red comforter? It would sorter spruce you up, an' keep you warm, besides; you know you 've had a cold fer a week, an' yer pipes is all stopped up." So it was decided, and Billy wore the comforter.

At seven o 'clock they were ready, and, the news having spread abroad that the Wiggses were going to a show, many of the neighbors came in to see how they looked and to hear how it happened.

"Some of you all shake down the stove an' pull the door to fer me. I am jes' that skeered of hurtin' Mrs. Eichorn's veil I'm 'fraid to turn my head," Mrs. Wiggs said nervously, as she stepped off the porch.

The little procession had left the railroad tracks far behind, when Mrs. Wiggs stopped suddenly.

"Fer the land's sakes alive! Do you know what we 've gone an' done? We have left the theayter tickets to home!"

At this Australia began to cry, and a gloom settled upon the party.

"Billy, you run back, fast as yer legs kin carry you, an' look in that tin can behind the clock, an' we'll wait right here fer you." Mrs. Wiggs wrapped Europena in her shawl, and tried to keep up the spirits of the party as they huddled on the curbing to await Billy's return.

"Look how pretty it looks, all the lights a-streamin' out the winders on the snow. Looks like a chromo ma used to have."

But the young Wiggses were in no frame of mind to appreciate the picturesqueness of the scene.

It was very cold, and even the prospect of the show was dimmed by the present discomfort. By and by Australia's sobs began anew.

"What's the matter, honey? Don't cry; Billy'll be back in a little while, an' then we'll git in where it's good an' warm."

"I want my supper!" wailed Australia.

Then it dawned on Mrs. Wiggs for the first time that, in the excitement of preparation, supper had been entirely overlooked.

"Well, if that don't beat all!" said she. "I had jes' 'bout as much idea of supper as a goat has of kid gloves!"

But when Billy came flying back with the tickets, and the party had started once more on the long walk to the Opera House, the enticing posters began to appear, and supper and the cold were forgotten.