A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
Time was an abstraction of which the inhabitants of Bean Alley took little notice. The arbitrary division of one's life into weeks and days and hours seemed, on the whole, useless. There was but one day for the men, and that was pay day, and one for the women, and that was rent day. As for the children, every day was theirs, just as it should be in every corner of the world.
On this particular fall afternoon, just outside Phineas Flathers' cottage, a lively game was in progress. It was a game known in Bean Alley as "Sockabout," and it had to do with caps or battered hats laid in a row, and with a small rubber ball that was thrown into them from a distance. Like many other apparently simple diversions, Sockabout had its complexities. In fact, the rules admitted of so many interpretations that an umpire was indispensable.
Under ordinary circumstances Chick Flathers would have scorned so passive a role as umpire, but to-day he was handicapped. In the first place he had no cap to contribute to the row on the ground, and in the second he was burdened with a very large and wriggly bundle, which gave evidence of marked disfavor the moment he ceased to jolt it violently on his knees.
In the midst of an unusually fierce altercation, in which four boys contended for the same cap, Skeeter Sheeley's voice rose above the clamor.
"It's our turn! Umpire says so, didn't you, Chick? Aw, you did, too! I kin understand you better 'n you kin understand yourself. 'Course it's ours. Stop shovin' me, Gussie McGlory, I'll swat yer in the jaw in a minute! Look out, Chick! Look out fer the kid!"
The youngest resident of Bean Alley was probably saved from premature death by the timely appearance of two ladies at the far end of the street.
Chick, recognizing the younger one, started joyfully to meet her, but at sight of her companion he stopped short. For two years he had regarded that plump, smiling, elderly lady as his arch enemy. She was after him. She wanted to put him in something that sounded like "The Willows Awful Home." Once she had almost gotten him, but Aunt 'Tella interposed. He was not afraid of the truant officer, nor of the cop, although they were generally after him, too, but he had horrible nightmares in which he saw himself being dragged into captivity by this bland lady in the purple dress, who always smiled.
Just as he was seeking a hiding-place sufficiently large to accommodate himself and his charge, he was summoned home. Considerable commotion was apparent in the crowded kitchen and Mr. Flathers was moving about with an alacrity unusual to him.
"Git off your shoes and stockings, Chick, and turn your coat inside out. Here, I'll hold the baby; yer Mammy's nursing the other one. Shove that beer can under the stove, and hide that there cuckoo clock."
Chick followed instructions with the air of one who understood the situation. It was not the first time he had prepared hurriedly for visitors.
"They're stopping at Jireses'," reported Mr. Flathers from the window. "Here, take this kid and set out there on the door-step. Don't you dare budge till they've saw you and spoke to you."
Chick resumed his position on the door-step with a heavy heart. The line of battle had been pushed south, and he was completely out of the firing line.
His bare feet and legs were cold in the biting November air, and he had jolted the baby until he felt there were no more jolts left in him. It was, moreover, a terrifying business to sit there and calmly wait his fate.
"Them's them!" announced Skeeter Sheeley, racing down the alley. "They give Mr. Jires some oranges. If they give you one, you goin' to gimme half?"
Chick was too miserable to answer. The bars of an institution seemed to be already closing upon him.
Mrs. Ivy, holding her skirts very high and picking her way gingerly around the frozen puddles, was the first to reach him.
"Ah! Here's our good little friend Rick, or Dick, is it? And this is the sweet little baby sister that God sent you."
"Naw it ain't," said Skeeter; "that there's a boy, an' it ain't no kin to him. Its paw's in the pen, an' its maw's up fer ninety days, an' its jes' boardin' at his house."
"The case that was reported for the Home," said Mrs. Ivy, turning with a significant nod to her companion who had just come up.
At the word "home" Chick shuddered. It was the most terrible word in the English language to him.
"What's the matter with your thumb, old fellow?" Miss Lady asked, seeing his frightened look. "Come here, Skeeter, and tell me what he says."
She relieved Chick of the young person whose parents were not in a position to minister to his wants, and sat on the door-step between the two boys, listening with flattering attention to a detailed description of each hero's wounds and scars and how they had been received.
Mrs. Ivy, meanwhile, a veritable spider in the midst of a web of institutions, was warily planning to ensnare every helpless, poverty- stricken fly that came her way. To her, the web was not made for the fly, but the fly for the web; supplying flies was her chief occupation.
Standing just inside the kitchen door with her skirts still gathered carefully about her, she viewed her surroundings with mournful sympathy.
"The fact are," Phineas was saying as he held his coat together at the collar, in a pretended effort to conceal his lack of a shirt, "that we ain't been prosperin' since you was last here. Looks like the hand of the Lord--"
"Ah, Mr. Flathers," remonstrated Mrs. Ivy, with a finger on her lip, "never forget that whom He loveth He chasteneth."
"I don't, Mrs. Ivy, I don't. I keep that in mind. If it wasn't fer that, Mrs. Ivy, I declare I don't know what I would do. Now you comin' to-day was a answer to prayer! I just ast that some way would be pervided 'fore the rent man come back at six o'clock. I didn't say in my prayer what way, I just said a way, that a way would be pervided. And when I seen you and the young lady turnin' in the alley, I sez to Maria, 'never try to shake my faith no more, the clouds has been lifted!'"
Mrs. Ivy, who was much more given to dispensing morals than money, shifted her position.
"Mr. Flathers," she said, looking at him with what she conceived to be a searching glance, "do you ever drink?"
Assuring himself that Chick had gotten the can quite out of sight, Phineas looked at her reproachfully:
"Me? Why, Mrs. Ivy, I thought everybody knowed that since I joined the Church--of course I ain't denying that there was a time when I knowed the taste of liquor. There ain't no good denying that, and, besides confession is good fer me, it humbles my spirit, Mrs. Ivy, it keeps me from being a publican."
"And tobacco?" queried Mrs. Ivy. "Liquor and tobacco go hand in hand, they are twin evils. Are you addicted to the use of tobacco?"
"Not me!" said Phineas, truthfully for once. "I ain't soiled my lips with a seegar for over twenty years, and you couldn't git me to chew if you chloroformed me. Ef liquor is the drink, terbaccer is the food of the devil, as I see it." Mrs. Ivy beamed upon him, as she opened the silver bag at her belt. "I shall report your case at our next meeting," she said with enthusiasm. "I shall quote your very words. And now I am going to pin this little badge on you, this little white badge that tells the world you belong to the Anti-Tobacco League. You have the honor of wearing what few of our greatest statesmen can wear! You have proven that a humble laborer can lead the way to Reform."
Miss Lady appeared at this point with the Boarder, who like most individuals of his class, complained continuously of the quantity and quality of his food.
"You find us in a bad way, Mis' Squeerington," Phineas said, offering her a bottomless chair with the air of a Christian martyr. "If my sister Myrtella knowed the half of what we was passin' through she wouldn't continue to steel her heart against us."
"Myrtella's heart's all right," said Miss Lady cheerfully; "she takes care of Chick, doesn't she?"
"She does, mam, in a way. But there's heavy expenses on a pore man with a family. Mrs. Flathers now ain't been able to have a see-ance since before the baby come. She did give one trance settin' yesterday, but she says she don't know what's got into her, she feels so sort of weak like!"
"How long has she been taking care of this other baby?" Miss Lady asked.
"Most ever since ours come. The Juvenile Court was looking round fer some one to nurse him till his maw got out of the jail hospital. I sez to Maria, 'Here's a chanct to do a good Christian act an' earn a honest penny. We'll take it in an' treat it like our own, sez I, an' the Lord will not fergit us, sez I!"
The Boarder, taking advantage of this assurance of hospitality, set up such a peremptory demand for food, that Miss Lady was compelled to walk the floor with him.
"Where is Mrs. Flathers?" she asked in despair. "Can't we give him a bottle or something?"
Maria, more limp, and inanimate than usual, came out of the dim interior of the adjoining room, carrying a yet more limp and inanimate bundle which she exchanged with Miss Lady for hers, and silently retired into the inner room where she was followed by Mrs. Ivy.
"An' this here is ours!" exclaimed Phineas, bending with sudden enthusiasm over the child in Miss Lady's arms, and tenderly lifting the shawl from the weazened face and tiny claw-like hands. "This here is Loreny. There ain't nary one of the rest of 'em lived over two weeks, an' this here one is goin' on four. Kinder looks like we're goin' to keep her with us, don't it?"
Miss Lady could find no answer. The white lips and the blue circles about the small, sunken eyes, bespoke the same disinclination to risk life under such circumstances as had been shown by all the other little Flatherses.
"Course she ain't like that other baby," Phineas went on with genuine earnestness, "but then he's a boy, an' eats more. She's goin' to git fat an' pretty, ain't you, Loreny?"
He put his coarse brown thumb into the little hand which closed about it and clung to it, and sat watching her, unmindful of his visitor.
"She don't look what you'd call strong," he went on, anxiously, "but you wouldn't say she was sick, would you?"
"I am afraid I should," Miss Lady said gravely; "she looks very sick to me."
"She does? Then I'd better git the doctor," Phineas rose hurriedly, then sat down again. "But he never done the others no good. Maria always contended it was him that killed 'em. Ain't there somethin' we kin do? Don't you know somethin'?"
"Yes, I think I do, only you may not be willing to do it."
"You try me. I'll do anything you say, Miss. If the Lord will only spare her--"
"It's not the Lord that's taking her," Miss Lady cried impatiently, "it's you that are sending her, Mr. Flathers. Can't you see that you are killing your baby?"
He looked at her in amazed horror.
"Yes, you are!" went on Miss Lady fiercely, "you are selling her food to another baby; you are letting her mother work so hard that she can scarcely nourish herself. Just look at Mrs. Flathers! Anybody can see that if she had better food and less to do she'd be a different person."
"Oh, Maria was real pretty onct," Phineas said somewhat resentfully, "but when a man marries one of them slim little blondes he never knows what he's gittin'. They sort of shrink up on yer an' git faded an' stringy."
"Yes, but think what she got," said Miss Lady determined to press the matter home. "Myrtella says you were a strong, handsome young man, who could have turned your hand to almost anything, and look at you now! A broken-down loafer, sitting around the saloons, talking religion while your baby starves. I don't wonder Myrtella is ashamed of you, I am ashamed of you, and if this poor little girl ever lives to grow up, she will be ashamed of you, too!"
"No, no," cried Phineas brokenly, his head in his hands, "she won't be that--if the Lord,--I mean if she lives, I'll be a better man, Mis' Squeerington, indeed I will. Nobody ever will know in the world how much I want children of my own. That's why I 'dopted Chick--that's one reason I took in this new one. Seemed like as if my baby went--"
"We'll try to keep her," Miss Lady said with a rush of sympathy. "I'll do everything I can but you must help, Mr. Flathers. You are willing to do your part, aren't you?"
His emotions, used to responding to false stimulants, being now appealed to by the one genuine feeling in him, threatened to become uncontrolled.
"There, there!" Miss Lady said, "if you really want to save her, I think there's a way."
"Not a Orphan's Home?" asked Phineas, lifting one eye from the baby's petticoat where his head had been buried.
"No, a clean home of her own. There's no reason why you shouldn't go to work, Mr. Flathers, and support your family decently. I'll take Chick home with me. Myrtella will be glad to have him for a little visit. Mrs. Ivy is going to send the other baby to the Foundling's Home. Then you'll only have to look after Mrs. Flathers and the baby; you surely can do that, can't you?"
"Yes 'm, I kin do that. 'Course any man kin do that. But I been out of a regular job so long, you'd sorter help me find something to start on?"
"I'll get you something to do, if you will only stick to it. Perhaps Mrs. Sequin can give you work at her new house. She gave our old colored man, Uncle Jimpson, a place."
"Jes' so it ain't garden work, nor gittin' up coal, nor nothin' that brings on rheumatism."
"Have you rheumatism?"
"No, mam, Praise God! I have escaped this far by bein' kereful. You know what it means, Mis' Squeerington, when a man with a family gits down with the rheumatism. There's Jires, now--"
"Yes, and Mr. Jires does more for his family lying flat on his back than you do for yours, up and walking around! You're not fooling me one bit, Mr. Flathers, and there's no use trying to fool yourself. You either mean seriously to go to work or you don't. Which is it?"
Phineas Flathers' strong impulse was to flee the scene. He saw his liberty vanishing before the awful prospect held out by this pretty young lady who could be so sympathetic one moment and so stern the next. But the tiny claw-like fingers of Loreny held him fast. He looked at his imprisoned thumb and smiled tenderly. Then he faced Miss Lady squarely for the first time.
"You help me git a job, Miss, an' I'll promise to take keer of this here baby."
"What you need," came the murmur of Mrs. Ivy's voice from the next room, where she was taking leave of Maria Flathers, "is more beauty in your home, something to uplift you and inspire you. I am going to send you one of our traveling art galleries, you may keep the pictures a whole week, long enough to learn the titles and the names of the painters. Just think what it will mean to lift your tired eyes to a beautiful, serene Madonna! And couldn't you have more color in your home? We find color so stimulating. Scarlet geraniums for instance. Wouldn't you like some scarlet geraniums?"
"I dunno where we'd put 'em at," Maria said wearily, shifting the weight of the Boarder to her other arm. Then her face hardened suddenly, and she wheeled into the kitchen.
"Flathers," she said, "it's him coming round the house now. He said he'd be back before six, an' wouldn't stand no foolin'. What you goin' to do, Flathers?"
Before Miss Lady and Mrs. Ivy could make their exit, the way was blocked by a heavy-set, muscular, one-eyed man who placed a hand on either side of the door jamb and unnecessarily announced that there he was. Frantic efforts on the part of Phineas to signify to the newcomer by winks and gestures, that the presence of guests would prevent his talking business, were without effect.
"You ladies'll have to excuse me," said the intruder cheerfully, "but I can't fool with this bunch no longer. It's pay, or git out, this time and no mistake."
Maria began to cry, and forgot to jolt the Boarder, and the Boarder who insisted upon being jolted every instant he was not sleeping or eating, began to cry also. Whereupon Loreny, who had been laid upon the kitchen table, heard the noise and felt called upon to add her voice to the chorus.
By this time Chick and his colleagues, scenting excitement from afar, had followed its trail and now presented themselves breathless and interested to await developments. "Puttin' out" was not a particular novelty in Bean Alley, but the presence of guests added a picturesque feature.
"If you can wait a week longer," said Phineas with some attempt at dignity, "I'll be in a position to settle up to date. I'm expectin' to git a job--"
At this the rent man threw back his head and laughed, and the youngsters back of him laughed, and even the Boarder stopped crying a moment to see what had happened.
"But he really is," insisted Miss Lady, coming to Phineas' assistance. "He's going to work the first of the week. Surely you can wait a week longer."
"I can, Miss!" said the man in the door, gallantly. "I been waiting a week longer on Flathers for more'n two months. There ain't absolutely no use in arguing the matter further. It's pay up, or git out, to-day."
"Well, if this ain't the limit!" said Phineas, with the air of one who had reached it many times before, but never such a limitless limit as this.
"But if we pay this month's rent for him, can't you let him make up the back rent later?" argued Miss Lady, trying to comfort Maria who threatened to become hysterical.
"When you've known Flathers as long as I have, you won't talk about him paying up."
"But you can't put them out like this, with that little baby and no place to go!"
"There's the Charity Organization, and the Alms House," suggested Mrs. Ivy, wiping her eyes through sympathy.
"I'd hate to drive 'em to that," said the man doggedly, "but I got my own family to consider, and I ain't what I once was, since I lost my eye."
"Poor man," sighed Mrs. Ivy; "how fortunate It was the left one! How did it happen?"
"Shot out," said the man, nothing loath to enter into particulars. "In a scrap between a pair of young swells that was hangin' round my place. Shot out in cold blood when I wasn't lookin'."
"But, my good man, didn't you prosecute?" asked Mrs. Ivy. "You know we have a Legal Aid Society for just such cases as yours."
"Yes'm, but one of the young gentlemen skipped the country, lit out fer foreign parts, took to the tall timber, as you might say."
"But he was not the one who did the shooting, was he?" asked Miss Lady, a sudden bright spot on either cheek, and the steady determination in her eye that had been Flathers' undoing.
"I ain't never been able to say which one done it," said the man, faltering under her steady gaze.
"Perhaps it was worth your while not to say?"
The man shot a quick glance of suspicion at her, then his eye came back to Phineas.
"Of course, I don't want to push him into the Poor House, and if he expects to get work--"
"I do, Dick," said Phineas fervently. "Monday morning I put my shoulder-blade to the wheel somewhere."
"Well, if the ladies'll stand for this month," said the man, evidently anxious to get away, "I'll wait a week longer on the back rent."
Miss Lady was preoccupied and silent on the way home. The world sometimes seemed desperately sordid, and human nature a baffling proposition.
At her gate Mrs. Ivy halted suddenly: "Do you know," she said, "it has just occurred to me! I shouldn't be one bit surprised if that horrid one-eyed man was the very one Mr. Morley shot!"