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Death Comes to Cat Alley by Jacob A. Riis

 

The dead-wagon stopped at the mouth of Cat Alley. Its coming made a commotion among the children in the block, and the Chief of Police looked out of his window across the street, his attention arrested by the noise. He saw a little pine coffin carried into the alley under the arm of the driver, a shoal of ragged children trailing behind. After a while the driver carried it out again, shoved it in the wagon, where there were other boxes like it, and, slamming the door, drove off.

A red-eyed woman watched it down the street until it disappeared around the corner. Then she wiped her eyes with her apron and went in.

It was only Mary Welsh's baby that was dead, but to her the alley, never cheerful on the brightest of days, seemed hopelessly desolate to-day. It was all she had. Her first baby died in teething.

Cat Alley is a back-yard illustration of the theory of evolution. The fittest survive, and the Welsh babies were not among them. It would be strange if they were. Mike, the father, works in a Crosby Street factory when he does work. It is necessary to put it that way, for, though he has not been discharged, he had only one day's work this week and none at all last week. He gets one dollar a day, and the one dollar he earned these last two weeks his wife had to draw to pay the doctor with when the baby was so sick. They have had nothing else coming in, and but for the wages of Mrs. Welsh's father, who lives with them, there would have been nothing in the house to eat.

The baby came three weeks ago, right in the hardest of the hard times. It was never strong enough to nurse, and the milk bought in Mulberry Street is not for babies to grow on who are not strong enough to stand anything. Little John never grew at all. He lay upon his pillow this morning as white and wan and tiny as the day he came into a world that didn't want him.

Yesterday, just before he died, he sat upon his grandmother's lap and laughed and crowed for the first time in his brief life, “just like he was talkin' to me,” said the old woman, with a smile that struggled hard to keep down a sob. “I suppose it was a sort of inward cramp,” she added—a mother's explanation of baby laugh in Cat Alley.

The mother laid out the little body on the only table in their room, in its only little white slip, and covered it with a piece of discarded lace curtain to keep off the flies. They had no ice, and no money to pay an undertaker for opening the little grave in Calvary, where their first baby lay. All night she sat by the improvised bier, her tears dropping silently.

When morning came and brought the woman with the broken arm from across the hall to sit by her, it was sadly evident that the burial of the child must be hastened. It was not well to look at the little face and the crossed baby hands, and even the mother saw it.

“Let the trench take him, in God's name; He has his soul,” said the grandmother, crossing herself devoutly.

An undertaker had promised to put the baby in the grave in Calvary for twelve dollars and take two dollars a week until it was paid. But how can a man raise two dollars a week, with only one coming in in two weeks, and that gone to the doctor? With a sigh Mike Welsh went for the “lines” that must smooth its way to the trench in the Potter's Field, and then to Mr. Blake's for the dead-wagon. It was the hardest walk of his life.

And so it happened that the dead-wagon halted at Cat Alley and that little John took his first and last ride. A little cross and a number on the pine box, cut in the lid with a chisel, and his brief history was closed, with only the memory of the little life remaining to the Welshes to help them fight the battle alone.

In the middle of the night, when the dead-lamp burned dimly at the bottom of the alley, a policeman brought to Police Headquarters a wailing child, an outcast found in the area of a Lexington Avenue house by a citizen, who handed it over to the police. Until its cries were smothered in the police nursery upstairs with the ever ready bottle, they reached the bereaved mother in Cat Alley and made her tears drop faster. As the dead-wagon drove away with its load in the morning, Matron Travers came out with the now sleeping waif in her arms. She, too, was bound for Mr. Blake's.

The two took their ride on the same boat—the living child, whom no one wanted, to Randall's Island, to be enlisted with its number in the army of the city's waifs, strong and able to fight its way; the dead, for whom a mother's heart yearns, to its place in the great ditch.

 
 
 

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