A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
The sudden light of publicity that had fallen upon the Cant-Pass-It saloon sent a glow over that entire region of Billy-goat Hill. Everybody had something to talk about, and everybody talked, except Chick.
Phineas Flathers appointed himself headquarters for information, and devoted himself exclusively to arguing about the matter. Myrtella, his twin sister, who for fifteen years had presided over innumerable cooking ranges throughout the city, almost lost her new place through her interest in the affair.
The one subject upon which Myrtella Flathers considered herself a connoisseur was murder. In sundry third floors back, she had for years followed the current casualties with burning interest. Realism, romance, intrigue, adventure, she found them all, in these grim recitals of daily crime.
Myrtella and Phineas Flathers had been cast into the sea of life at an early age to sink or swim as they saw fit. Myrtella had survived by combating the waves, while Phineas adopted the less arduous expedient of floating.
To him work appeared a wholly artificial and abnormal action, self- imposed and unnecessary. The stage of life presented so many opportunities for him to exercise his histrionic ability, that the idea of settling down to a routine of labor seemed a waste of talent. With far-reaching discernment he had early perceived that a straight part was not for him.
In casting about for a field that promised the widest opportunity for his talent, he discovered the Immanuel Church in the city. Here philanthropy burned with such zealous enthusiasm that the harvest was not sufficient for the laborers. Phineas saw his chance and grasped it. He became a Prodigal Son.
From that time on his sole vocation was attending church. Three times a week, regardless of the inclemency of the weather, he unwound his long legs from the chair rungs in the Cant-Pass-It, carefully smoothed his red hair, and made his way to a front pew in the Immanuel Church. At intervals, calculated to a nicety, he fell from grace, and was reclaimed, passing from periods of grave backsliding into periods of great religious fervor. Meanwhile he followed the Scriptures literally and took no thought of the morrow. His reliance in Providence and the Ladies' Aid became, in time, absolute.
Nor did Phineas Flathers' self-respect suffer in the least by this mode of living. In no sense did he consider himself an incumbent. Did he not three times a week give a masterly presentation of "our needy poor," "our brother-in-misfortune"? Did he not freely offer up his family for each new church society to cut its wisdom teeth upon? Had Maria, his wife, not labored wearily through unintelligible tracts, and Chick, his adopted son, done penance in Sunday School, as often as three Sundays in succession? Considering all things, Phineas felt that the church got a great deal for its money.
Myrtella Flathers, following another method, had for fifteen years fought every obstacle that crossed her path. She had left in her wake traditions of unexcelled cooking, and unparalleled cleanliness, together with a vanquished army of mistresses, housemaids, laundresses, and butlers. She belonged to the order of Cooks Militant, and she had long since won her spurs.
Among the things which Myrtella in her sweeping condemnation of life in general disapproved, none loomed larger than her brother and his family. But the bond of blood, stronger than likes or dislikes, favor or prejudice, brought her back to him again and again, to share with him her substance, and to criticize his conduct.
On this particular afternoon she had started out for Billy-goat Hill to hear about the shooting, and to break the news to the family, that she had gotten a new place. This happened with such regularity, that it would not have deserved attention, had not the astounding fact to be added that Myrtella was pleased. In her fifteen years of rebellious services she had never before approximated a place that gave satisfaction. To be sure there were dark and not-to-be-remembered instances where she had failed to give satisfaction herself, but usually it was the place, "the new place," with its varying code of musts and must-nots, that caused Myrtella to spend many of her days in the Intelligence Office, or on street-cars, or tramping through the streets in quest of that ever elusive "good home."
She had started out on her pilgrimage in a fairly equable frame of mind, but before she got well under way, the wind had made her furious. It was a frisky March breeze that had gotten left behind and now wandered into May, bent on mischief.
Myrtella tacked into it, like a sailing sloop, full rigged and all sails set, an angular, heavy-set person with a belligerent expression strangely at variance with the embarrassed, almost timid movements of her hands and feet. Short locks of straight black hair whipped across her face, her skirts, blown tightly back against her knees, bellied in the wind, while her wide-brimmed hat caught the full force of the blast, like a veritable top-sail.
By the time she had taken three tacks to cross the common, and was ready to come about at the corner, there was a balloon jibe, that sent the sails all flapping against the mast, and left her in such a flurry of indignation, that she failed to see a string that stretched its insidious length, two inches above the pavement, from fence to curb.
After her fall, instead of expiring of apoplexy, as might have been expected from her countenance, Myrtella picked herself up from the pavement and, peeping through a crack in the fence, smiled. It was an expression so unfamiliar to her features that they scarcely knew how to manage it.
"I see you, Chick!" she said in a voice that strove to be gentle; "why don't you come on out here and speak to me?"
Chick and Skeeter, recognized a significant bulge to the string bag which she carried, scrambled forth, the former skilfully evading her outstretched arm of welcome.
"He says," interposed the ever-ready Skeeter, as his companion made queer noises in his throat, "that he never knowed it was you. He never went to trip you up. Honest to goodness! You ain't mad, are you?"
"No, I ain't mad." Myrtella still smiled as she brushed the dust from her skirt. "Here's a orange I brought you, Chick. You ain't been sick, have you?"
"Naw! He ain't been sick, but he took that bath you ast him to, and where's his nickel at?"
Myrtella stood and watched the boys until the corner grocery swallowed them and their new nickel, then she sighed and turned into Bean Alley.
There were no streets here, and an occasional rock or tin can were the only islands in a sea of mud. The Flathers' cottage, consisting of two rooms and a half attic, rested its weight against the cottage next it, with something of the blind reliance that Phineas Flathers rested upon the Church. On its other side it commanded an uninterrupted view of the Dump Heap, which was the background for all the juvenile social life of that section of Billy-goat Hill.
Here ships were launched in mud puddles, flower gardens attempted in tin cans, and fierce wars waged between rival gangs; here embryo mothers played with stick and rag dolls, and aspirants for the circus performed acrobatic feats on the one bit of fence that had not tumbled down. And all this activity went on almost under the wheels of the dump carts that passed to and fro all day. Myrtella, picking her way through the mud, was just turning the corner of the Flathers' house when her eyes fell upon a broken window-pane stuffed with a woolen skirt which she had given to Maria to make over into trousers for Chick. She promptly jerked it out with a force that brought the glass with it, and by the time she reached the back door, her jaw was set and her brows knit.
Considering the fact that the rear room was a composite kitchen, laundry, dining-room, pantry, coal house and cellar, the glances with which Myrtella swept the chamber and its one occupant, might have been a trifle less severe. It was a glance in which her individual abhorrence of dirt combined with her racial disapproval of "in-laws."
In the one space in the room that was not preempted, Maria Flathers bent above a wash tub, feebly persuading black garments to become gray. That was all she asked of them. She was not ambitious. Ambition, like everything else, had been soaked out of her long ago by those hot, steaming suds that enveloped her the greater part of her waking hours, and left her physically, mentally, and morally limp. Her one strong instinct was motherhood; but five little Flathers, opening feeble eyes on their future environment, had become so discouraged that they promptly closed them again. It was as if they really could not stand the prospect of life in that home with Mr. and Mrs. Flathers for parents!
Only Chick survived, the ash-barrel baby, who really was not theirs at all, but who having begun life in their back yard, continued as everything else continued when once established at the Flathers', for the simple reason that no one ever took the trouble to change the existing disorder of things.
As Myrtella sailed wrathfully into port and docked at the door-step, Maria looked up with a gasp:
"Law! Myrtella, you gimme a turn. I forgot this here was your afternoon off. I thought sure you was Sheeley's rent man."
"Sheeley's?" repeated Myrtella, her curiosity getting the better of her temper, as she removed an old shoe and a flour sifter from the nearest chair and sat down.
"Yes, he's our landlord, but he gits another man to collect. Guess you heard about his gittin' shot?"
"Read every word that's been printed. Is he goin' to die?"
"Not him. Ain't nothin' the matter with him 'ceptin' his eye is blowed out. My uncle, back home, got both his eyes--You, Chick!" this to an invisible presence that manifested itself only through a shower of pebbles that followed in the wake of a fleeing cat. "Go up to the saloon, Chick, and tell yer Pappy he'll have to come on home. Yer Aunt 'Tella's here."
"Don't look like he grows a inch a year," said Myrtella thoughtfully, watching him depart.
"That there Mrs. Ivy's been after me agin to send him to the Widows and Orphans' Home. She says she can git him in, and they'll learn him to read and write."
"Well, he ain't goin'! I guess as long as I'm a payin' the grocery bills, I got a right to say who'll eat the food! What's that you are hidin'?"
Maria, who had been attempting to remove something surreptitiously from the table, looked apologetic.
"It's one of them plaster casts, I'll be bound," Myrtella continued. "I might 'a' knowed you'd git the mate to the other one, and not a square inch of space in the house to set it on! What did you give fer it?"
Mrs. Flathers withdrew her apron, and tenderly dusted the highly colored features of an Indian squaw, whose head-feathers reposed upon her arm. Then she placed it on a corner of the stove where its imposing dignity produced a momentary impression upon even the flinty Myrtella.
"How much?" she demanded heartlessly.
"A quarter down, and ten cents a week." Maria sighed. "'Twouldn't be no trouble at all if it wasn't for Phineas spending so much car-fare going to church and that bow-legged, onery rent-man, that comes sneakin' round here every week, acting like poor people just kep' money settin' 'round in jars waitin' fer the likes of him!"
Maria's hatred of the rent man was the one emotion that seemed to be left in her withered bosom. To baffle him, to evade him, to anticipate his coming and be away from home, constituted the chief object of her existence.
A bang of the gate announced the arrival of the head of the household, which was promptly followed by the strains of a hymn cheerfully whistled in rag-time.
Phineas Flathers, after months of abstinence, had reached that period where he felt that not only his constitution, but his profession would profit by a temporary fall from grace. Solicitude for his moral welfare was beginning to flag at the Church; his regular attendance, his apparent absorption in the sermon, and his emotional execution of the hymns, all went to lift him from the class of interesting converts, to the deadly commonplace of regular members. Only that afternoon he had decided to revive interest in his case at any cost. He had just treated others, as he would have others treat him at the Cant-Pass-It, when he was summoned home to see his sister.
He now presented himself in his own doorway, a hand on either side of the jamb, and bowed profoundly:
"Miss Flathers! Pleased to meet you! I see you still continue to favor yourself in looks. Lost your place, I suppose?"
"That's right, be insultin'!" Myrtella flared up haughtily; "throw it in my face that I'm hard to please, and ain't willin' to put up with any old place I come to."
"Now I wouldn't put it that I was throwing it in yer face exactly," began Phineas, anxious to propitiate.
"Which means I'm a story-teller?" Myrtella squared herself for action.
"Oh, come on along," coaxed Phineas; "no harm's meant. Go on an' tell us what you left fer."
"Who said I'd left? Puttin' words in my mouth I never thought of utterin'! I ain't left, and what's more I ain't going to. I got a good place."
Phineas whistled an aggravatingly attenuated note of surprise: "The lady you are working for must be a deef-mute."
"She is. The same as you'll be some day. She's been dead three years."
The triumph with which she made this announcement put a momentary quietus on Phineas, and enabled her to proceed:
"It's a widower gentleman with three children that I'm cookin' for, and I ain't set eyes on one of 'em except at meal times since I hired to 'em. Queerington's their names, out on College Street, right around the corner from the Immanuel Church. He's a teacher or something, one of them bookwormy men, whose head never pays no attention to what the rest of him is doing. 'Take charge,' said he, 'of everything, do the ordering, and cooking, and don't bother me with nothing.'"
"But does he bother you?" put in Phineas astutely; "that's the real point."
"Wasn't I just tellin' you that he didn't? He's been off on a trip to Virginia; gets home to-night. I've got the whole house in the pa'm of my hand, from cellar to attic. Miss Connie, she's the oldest, as flighty as a pidgeon and head so full of boys she don't pay no attention to another livin' thing. Then there's Miss Hattie, the second one, jes' at that spiteful thirteen age, but so busy peckin' on her sister, she ain't no time left for me--"
"Thought you said there was three children," put in Maria mildly.
"I did. You didn't think I lied, did you? Always ready to snatch up a person's words before they git 'em out of their mouth! The third one is a boy, Bertie they call him, sick and spin'ly, but a right nice little fellow. Where'd Chick go?"
"He's settin' out there on the door-step. Did you hear 'bout our shootin'?"
"Maria was tryin' to tell me, but she didn't seem to have nothin' clear to tell. Who do you think done it?"
Phineas Flathers, balancing himself on the hind legs of his chair, with his thumbs in the armholes of his vest, was nothing loath to launch forth into a full recital of the affair, embellishing it with many a flourish as he went along. In the bosom of his family he was freed from those bonds of restraint that embarrassed his utterance when in more formal society. The amount of profanity that he could dispose of in the course of an ordinary conversation was little short of astounding. This being more than an ordinary conversation and his mood being mellow, called for an extra vocabulary. He graphically set forth the facts in the case, then gave his imagination full sway in accounting for them. He interpreted the whole affair as a clash between capital and labor, a conflict between the pampered aristocrat and the common man. The shooting was the result of a deep-laid plan: Dillingham and Morley had met by appointment, moved by what motive he did not make clear, to kill Sheeley, an honest laboring man. Hadn't the one on horseback, that they say was Mr. Morley, stopped him at the crossing, on the very afternoon of the shooting, and engaged him in conversation? Phineas assured his listeners that he trembled even now when he thought of the danger he had been in!
"I'd seed him afore that day a ridin' with a pretty young lady, that most got her neck broke under a engine, but this time he was by hisself, a settin' there on his horse, as proud as a king and stirrin' me up about the rich folks not allowing us poor working classes to have no streets out here. I suspicioned somethin' right then; says I to myself, 'he's got a handsome face but his mind is a well of corruption.' And when I heard he'd shot Sheeley ...Now what in thunder is the matter with you, Chick?"
During this recital Chick had been sitting in the doorway, his knees drawn up to his chin, listening intently, but at this point he cried out in a sputter of protesting sounds.
"It's the shootin', it's done got on his mind," explained Maria, winding her long thin hair into a yet tighter knot at the back of her head. "He takes on like that every time he hears us talkin' 'bout it, and nobody can't make out a word he's sayin'. Fer two or three days I couldn't scarcely git him to eat nothin'."
"If your cooking ain't any better than it used to be I ain't surprised," Myrtella said. "How bad was Sheeley shot, Phineas?"
"Oh, he'll be laid up fer a month yit. They say the retinue of his eye was cracked right across the middle. But that ain't worryin' Sheeley. He's livin' in style at the hospital, all his bills paid, and the swells lookin' after him. I hear he ain't even goin' to prosecute. They've fixed him all right; besides he don't want to git that fly young gang down on his place. He's countin' on startin' up them sparrin' matches ag'in, as soon as the police quit noticin' him. Say, Sis, you don't happen to have a quarter 'bout you, do you?"
The peculiar persuasiveness of Phineas' voice when he threw out these financial suggestions, was very insidious. In some subtle way he made the favor all on the side of the recipient; he gave the donor, as it were, a chance to acquire merit.
But Myrtella wore the armor of experience. "No, I ain't!" she said, taking a firmer grasp on her bag. "I'm payin' the grocery man now, and buyin' clothes for Chick. What good does it do? I no more than git his hide covered than you go and sell the clothes offen his back. When are you goin' to git a job?"
"Well, you might say I had one now. Leastwise I'm a followin' Scriptures and bearin' one another's burdens. Jires, the flagman, over to the Junction has been laid up with rheumatism and he don't want the boss to know it. He sets in his box and hires me to go out and flag the trains like he tells me to."
"How many trains a day?"
"Two ups, three downs and a couple of freights."
"Should think you'd die of the exertion. How much do you get?"
"Oh, it ain't so much. But I ain't a ambitious man. What's the use of me a-slavin' and a-hordin' when I ain't got a child to leave it to? If Claude had a lived, or McKinley, I might 'a' had somethin' to work for."
"You mean you'd 'a' had somethin' to work for you. The Lord certainly done a good job when he changed His mind about letting them babies live."
"They're having onions next door fer supper," said Maria feebly, by way of diverting an old discussion. "I ain't been able to git 'em off my mind all afternoon."
Chick, who had been sent to the grocery to see what time it was, came back holding up five fingers.
"Gee, I got to be hiking!" said Phineas. "The passenger train from Virginia's due at five sixteen. It won't git here before a quarter of six, but I'm always there on the minute. That's what Jires pays me fer, fer bein' regular and reliable. Jes' let me get a regular habit and a clock ain't in it with me. Why, if I was to come in late at church, they'd stop the service!"
"Well, don't you be gittin' a regular habit of comin' 'round to the Queeringtons!" was Myrtella's parting shot as he rose unsteadily. "When I got anything to say to you I'll come here."
"That's right!" assented Phineas cordially; "you jes' make yourself at home. My home is your home. Maria'll tell you that I says to her only last night, I says, 'Maria, you needn't feel so cut up 'bout askin' Myrtella fer the rent this month, because this is her home, too. There ain't a board in it but I'd share with her, she knows that.' You tell her all I said, Maria, don't you keep back nothin'. Farewell!" and with an affectionate glance and a wave of the hand Phineas departed.
Now if he had followed the straight and narrow path, indicated by the rocks and tin cans, that led to the Junction, instead of the broad highway indicated by the plank walk that led to the Cant-Pass-It, the tragedy that hovered over Billy-goat Hill might have been averted.
But he had left the saloon in the midst of a heated controversy with two Italians, concerning the supremacy of America over all other nations. The fact that his country had never been proud of him in no way deterred him from being very proud of his country. Until the dispute was properly ended he felt that the honor of the nation was at stake.
His patriotic fervor ran so high that by the time he reached the crossing, the passenger train was already in sight. Jires, helpless and terrified at his post, was distractedly shouting directions from his little sentinel box.
"Flathers! There's a washout down the road! We've got to hold up the passenger train. Get out the red flag! Quick man! Be ready to signal the engineer. Three times cross ways! The red flag, you fool! the RED FLAG! Oh, my God!"
For Phineas Flathers, to whom all flags now looked red, white and blue, was standing at the crossing, joyously waving a white flag, while the engineer with his hand on the throttle, released the brakes, and sent his train thundering down the grade to destruction.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Myrtella, having finished her visit in a grand finale of pyrotechnics, in which she displayed Phineas to his wife in a number of blazing lifelike portraits, took her departure. It was not the first time she had faced the alternative of paying the rent, or seeing her only relative turned into the street, nor was it the first time that, after giving innumerable pieces of her mind to Maria, she had followed them up with the rent.
All the way home she discussed the matter audibly with herself, and was still muttering darkly when she reached the Queeringtons'. So absorbed was she in her own wrongs that she did not notice that the front door stood open, and figures were hurrying about in the hall.
As she let herself into the side door, a white-faced young girl, with her hair brushed straight back into a long braid, rushed through the pantry.
"What's the matter, Miss Hattie?"
The girl steadied herself by the banister. "It's father!" she said with chattering teeth. "There's been an awful accident just below the Junction. They can't even bring him home. They are taking him to a place out there, a Colonel Carsey's. Colonel Carsey was killed. He was sitting right by father. Oh! Myrtella, I'm so afraid father's going to die!"
Myrtella standing helplessly before the terror-stricken girl, could find no words of sympathy. In fact she appeared even more formidable and bristling than usual.
"Well, he ain't dead yet," she said shortly, "and any how, there ain't no reason why you shouldn't have supper. Trouble always sets heavy on a empty stomach."