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Superman by Fannie Hurst

 

The canker of the city is loneliness. It flourishes—an insidious paradox—where men meet nose to nose in Subway rushes and live layer on layer in thousand-tenant tenement houses. It thrives in three-dollars-a-week fourth-floor back rooms, so thinly partitioned that the crumple of the rejection-slip and the sobs of the class poetess from Molino, Missouri, percolate to the four-dollars-a-week fourth-floor front and fuddle the piano salesman's evening game of solitaire. It is a malignant parasite, which eats through the thin walls of hall bedrooms and the thick walls of gold bedrooms, and eats out the hearts it finds there, leaving them black and empty, like untenanted houses.

Sometimes love sees the To Let sign, hangs white Swiss curtains at the window, paints the shutters green, plants a bed of red geraniums in the front yard, and moves in. Again, no tenant applies; the house mildews with the damp of its own emptiness; children run when they pass it after dark; and the threshold decays. The heart must be tenanted or it falls out of repair and rots. Doctors called in the watches of the night to resuscitate such hearts climb out of bed reluctantly. It is a malady beyond the ken of the stethoscope.

One such heart beat in a woman's breast so rapidly that it crowded out her breath; and she pushed the cotton coverlet back from her bosom, rose to her elbow, and leaned out beyond her bed into the darkness of the room.

“Jimmie? Essie? That you, Jimmie?”

The thumping of her heart answered her, and the loud ticking of a clock that was inaudible during the day suddenly filled the third-floor rear room of the third-floor rear apartment. The continual din of the street slumped to the intermittent din of late evening; the last graphophone in the building observed the nine-o'clock silence clause of the lease at something after ten, and scratched its last syncopated dance theme into the tired recording disk of the last tired brain. An upholstered chair, sunk in the room's pool of darkness, trembled on its own tautened springs, and the woman trembled of that same tautness and leaned farther out.

“Who's there? That you, Jimmie?”

Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock!

She huddled the coverlet up under her chin and lay back on her pillow, but with her body so rigid that only half her weight relaxed to the mattress; and behind her tight-closed eyes flaming wheels revolved against the lids. Tears ran backward toward her ears like spectacle-frames and soaked into the pillow, a mouse with a thousand feet scurried between the walls.

“Essie? Jimmie, that you?”

Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock!

More tears leaked out from her closed eyes and found their way to her mouth, so that she could taste their salt. Then for a slight moment she dozed, with her body at full stretch and hardly raising the coverlet, and her thin cheek cupped in the palm of her thin hand. The mouse scurried in a light rain of falling plaster, and she woke with her pulse pounding in her ears.

“Jimmie? Jimmie? Who's there?”

Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock!

Sobs trembled through her and set the bed-springs vibrating, and she buried her head under her flat pillow and fell to counting the immemorial procession of phantom sheep that graze the black grasses of the Land of Wakeful Hours and lead their sleepless shepherds through the long, long, long pastures of the night.

“Three hundred 'n' five; three hundred 'n' six; three hundred 'n' seven; three hundred 'n'—Jimmie?”

A key scratched at the outer lock, and she sprang two-thirds from the bed, dragging the coverlet from its moorings.

“Jimmie, that you?”

“Sure, ma! 'Smatter?”

She relaxed as though her muscles had suddenly snapped, her tense toes and fingers uncurled, and the blood flowed back.

“I—Nothin', Jimmie; I was just wondering if that was you.”

“No, ma; it ain't me—it's my valet coming home from a dance at his Pressing Club. You ain't sick, are you, ma?”

“No. What time is it, Jimmie? It's so dark.”

“You been havin' one of your spells again, ma?”

“No, no, Jimmie.”

“Didn't you promise to keep a light going?”

“I'm all right.”

“Ouch! Geewhillikins, ma, if you'd burn half a dime's worth of gas till me and Essie get home from work nights we'd save it in wear and tear on our shins. I ain't got no more hips left than a snake.”

“It's a waste, Jimmie boy; gas comes so high.”

“You should worry, ma! Watch me light 'er up!”

“Be careful in there, Jimmie! Stand on a chair. I got a little supper spread out on the table for Essie and her friend. You take a sandwich yourself—”

“Forty cents in tips to-day, ma.”

“Forty cents!”

“Yeh; and a dame in Seventieth Street gimme a quarter and hugged the daylights out of me till my brass buttons made holes in me and cried brineys all over the telegram, and made me read it out loud twice, once for each ear: 'Unhurt, Sweetheart, and homeward bound—Bill.' Can you beat it? Five cents a word!”

“Jimmie, wasn't you glad to carry her a message like that?”

“It's a paying business, ma, if you're lucky enough to deal only in good news.”

A chair squealed on its castors, a patch of light sprang through the transom, and the chocolate-ocher bedroom and its chocolate-ocher furniture emerged into a chocolate-ocher half-light.

“Jimmie?”

“Huh?”

“I'm—I wish—Oh, nothin'!”

“Ain't you feelin' right, in there, ma?”

“Yes, Jimmie; but—but come in and talk to your old mother awhile, my boy.”

“Surest thing you know! Say, these are some sandwiches! You must 'a' struck pay-dirt in your sardine-mine, ma.”

“They're for her gen'l'man friend, Jimmie.”

The door flung open and threw an island of light pat on the bed. In the gauzy stream the face on the pillow, with the skin drawn over the cheeks tight as a vellum on a snare-drum, was vague as a head by Carriere after he had begun to paint through the sad film of his growing blindness.

“Jimmie, my boy!”

“Hello, ma!”

“Ain't your cheeks cold, though, Jimmie? It's right sharp out, ain't it? And Essie in her thin coat! You—you're a little late to-night, ain't you, Jimmie?”

He drew his loose-jointed figure up from over the bedside; and his features, half-formed as a sculptor's head just emerging from the marble, took on the easy petulance of youth, and he wiped the moist lips' print off his downy cheek with the back of his hand.

“Ah, there you go again! You been layin' here frettin' and countin' the minutes again, ain't you? Gee, it makes a fellow sore when he just can't get home no sooner!”

“No, no, Jimmie; I been layin' here sleepin' sound ever since I went to bed. I woke up for the first time just now. I'm all right, Jimmie, only—only—”

“Honest, ma, you ought to ask the company to put me in short-pants uniform, day duty, carrying telegrams of the day's catechism to Sunday-school classes.”

“I—Don't fuss at me, Jimmie! I—I guess I must 'a' had one of them smothering spells, and I didn't wait up for Essie and Joe to-night. I'm all right now, Jimmie—all right.”

He placed his heavy hand on her brow in half-understanding sympathy.

“Geewhillikins, why don't you tell a fellow? You want some of that black medicine, ma. You—gee!—you ain't lookin' kinda blue-like round the gills, are you? Old man Gibbs said we should send for him right away if—”

“No, no, Jimmie; I'm all right now.”

“Look! I brought you a carnation one of the operators gimme—one swell little queen, too. You want some of that black medicine, ma?”

“I'm all right now, Jimmie. It was just earlier in the evening I kinda had a spell. Ain't that pink pretty, though! Here, put it in the glass, and gimme a French kiss. Always ashamed like a big baby when it comes to kissin', ain't you? Ashamed to even kiss your old ma!”

“Aw!” He shuffled his feet and bent over her, with the red mounting above the gold collar of his uniform.

“And such a mamma-boy you used to be before you had to get out and hustle—such a mamma-boy, and now ashamed to give your old ma a kiss!”

“Ashamed nothin'! Here, ma, I'll smooth your hair for you the wrong way like Essie used to do when you came home from the store dead after the semiannual clearings.”

“No, no, Jimmie; these days I ain't got no more hair left to smooth.”

“You look good to me.”

“Aw, Jimmie, quit stringing your old ma. How can a stack o' bones look good to anybody?”

“You do.”

“Your papa used to say so, too, Jimmie; but in them days my hair was natural curly—little cute, springy curls like Essie's. The first day he seen me he fell for 'em; and the night before he died, Jimmie, with you and Essie asleep in your folding-cribs and me little thinkin' that the next week I'd be back in the department clerking again, he took me in his arms and—”

“Yes, yes; I know, ma—but didn't old man Gibbs say not to get excited? Lay back and don't talk, ma. I can feel your heart beatin' way down in your hands.”

“You're all tired out, ain't you, Jimmie?—too tired to listen to my talk; but you're going to wait up for your sister's young man to-night, ain't you, my boy? Go wet your hair and smooth it down. You'll wanna see him, Jimmie.”

“Fine chance.”

“Sure he's coming to-night, Jimmie. I got their supper all waitin'; and, see, there's my flowered wrapper at the foot of the bed, so I can get up and go in when—”

“Aw, cut out the comedy, ma! She ain't comin' straight home after the show any more'n a crooked road; and if she does he ain't coming with her.”

“Jimmie, she promised sure to-night.”

“Didn't she promise last night and the night before and the night before that?”

“But this afternoon when she left for the matinée, Jimmie, I wasn't feelin' so well, and she promised so sure.”

“Them girl ushers down there is too lively a bunch for her, ma. Ushin' in a theayter is next to bein' in the chorus—only—”

“Jimmie!”

“Sure it is—only it ain't so good one way, and it ain't so bad another. This new-fangled girl ushin' gets my goat, anyways. It ain't doin' her any good.”

“Oh, Gawd, Jimmie, don't I know it? I hated to see her take it—her so little and cute and pretty and all! Night-work ain't nothin' for our Essie.”

“Sure it ain't!”

“But what could we do, Jimmie? After I gave out, her six a week in the notions wasn't a drop in the bucket. What else could we do, Jimmie?”

“Just you wait, ma! This time next year life'll be one long ice-cream soda for you and her. Wait till my dynamo gets to charging like I want her to—I'll be runnin' this whole shebang with a bang!”

“You're a good boy, Jimmie; but a kid of seventeen ain't expected to have shoulders for three.”

“Just the samey, I showed a draft of my dynamo to the head operator, ma, and he's comin' up Sunday to have a look. Leave it here on the table just like it is, ma. You'll be ridin' in your Birdsong self-charging electric automobile yet!”

She let her fingers wander up and down his cheek and across his shoulders and into his uneven nappy hair.

“Poor Jimmie! If only you had the trainin'! Miss Maisie was up from the store to-day in her noon-hour and seen it standing here next to my bed; and she thought it was such a pretty-lookin' dynamo, with its copper wires and all.”

“You didn't let her—”

“No—honest, Jimmie! See—it ain't been touched; I didn't even let her go near the table's edge. She wanted to know when I was comin' back to the store—she says the corsets have run down since they got the new head saleslady, Jimmie.”

“If I'd 'a' been here I'd 'a' told her you ain't going back.”

“Sometimes I—I think I ain't, neither, Jimmie.”

“What?”

“Nothin'.”

“When you get well, ma, then I—”

“Then I'm going back on my job, Jimmie. Eighteen years—not countin' the three years your papa lived—at doing one thing sort of makes you married to it. I got my heart as set as always, Jimmie, on gettin' you in at the Electric Training School next door. If I hadn't broke down—”

“Nix for mine, ma!”

“Every day I sit by the window, Jimmie, and see the young engineers and electricians who board there goin' to work; and it breaks my heart to think of you, with your mind for inventions, runnin' the streets—a messenger boy—just when I was beginnin' to get where I could do for you.”

“Aw, cut that, ma! Don't I work round on my dynamo every morning till I go on duty? Wouldn't I look swell with an electricity book under my arm? I'd feel like Battling John drinking tea out of an egg-shell.”

“The trainin'-school's the place for you, Jimmie. If you'd only take the dynamo over to the superintendent and show him where you're stuck he'd help you, Jimmie. I been beggin' you so long, and if only you wasn't so stubborn!”

“I ain't got the nerve buttin' in over there; it's for fellows who got swell jobs already.”

“There's classes for boys, too, Jimmie; the janitor told me. Just go to-morrow and show your dynamo. It won't hurt nothin', and maybe they'll know just what the trouble is—it's only a little thing, Jimmie—three times in succession it worked last night, didn't it? It won't hurt to go, Jimmie—just to go and show it.”

“Nix; I ain't got the nerve. You just wait! I ain't got the trainin'; but didn't I sell my double lens the day after I got the patent? Didn't I make that twenty-five just like battin' your eye?”

“The janitor says you was robbed in it, Jimmie.”

“We should worry! Didn't we get a rockin'-chair and a string of beads and a tool-chest out of it?”

“It ain't you worries me so much, Jimmie. Here, put your head here on the pillow next to me, Jimmie. My heart's actin' up to-night. It ain't you worries me you're a man like your papa was and can hit back; but Essie—if only Essie—”

“You don't handle her right, ma; you're too easy-going with her. Since she went on her new job she's gettin' too gay—too gay!”

“Jimmie!”

“Sure she is. Like I told her last night when she came in all hours from dancing—if she didn't take that war-paint off her face I'd get her in a corner and rub it off till—”

“I've begged her and begged her, Jimmie, just as hard as I ever begged you about the dynamo, to wash her face of it. It's eatin' me, Jimmie—eatin' me! There wasn't a girl in the store that didn't envy that girl her complexion. Oh, Gawd, Jimmie, it ain't paint alone—it's where it can lead to.”

“She needs an old-time spankin'.”

“Them girls down at the theayter where she works put them ideas in her head. It's only of late with her, Jimmie. Wasn't she like a little baby when I had her across from me in the notions?”

“She's gotta keep her face clean or I'll—”

“She needs somebody strong like her papa was to handle her, Jimmie. She's stubborn in ways, like you, and needs somebody older, my boy—somebody strong that can handle her and love her all at once.”

“She's gotta quit sneakin' home at all hours. She don't pay no attention to me; but she's gotta quit or I—I'll go down and smash up that whole theayter crowd of 'em!”

“If she'd 'a' had a father to grow up under it would 'a' been different. He was one of the strongest men in the power-house, Jimmie. Mechanics make strong men, my boy, and that's why my heart's set on you, Jimmie, takin' up where he left off.”

“It's that job of hers, ma; it ain't no hang-out for her down there round the lights. She's gettin' too gay. I'll smash that ticket-speculator to gelatin if he don't show up or leave her alone!”

“'Sh-h-h, Jimmie! He's her young man; she says he's a upright and honorable young man with intentions.”

“Where she hidin' him, then?”

“He—he's bashful about comin', Jimmie. Last night on her knees right here by this bed she told me, Jimmie, with her eyes like saucers, that he's said everything but come right out and ask her.”

“What's the matter? Is he tongue-tied?”

“A fine fellow, she says, Jimmie—up to date as a new dime, makin' from thirty to forty a week. Get that, Jimmie? Gawd—forty a week! On forty a week, Jimmie, what they could do for themselves and for you!”

“I wanna look him over first. I knew a fellow in that game got forty a week and ninety days once, too.”

“Jimmie!”

“There's a bunch of speculators used to hang round the Forty-second Street telegraph office, with one eye always on the cop and the other always open for rubes. They was all hunchbacks from dodging the law.”

“He ain't one of them kind, Jimmie.”

“Then why don't he have a roof over his head instead of doing sidewalk business?”

“Ticket-speculatin' is like any other business, Essie says. Profit is profit, whether you make it on a sheet of music, a washboard, or a theayter ticket.”

“Then why don't he show his face round here, instead of runnin' her round night after night when she ought to be home sleepin'?”

“Gawd, Jimmie! I don't know, except what she says. I just feel like I couldn't stand her not bringing him to-night—like—like I couldn't stand it, Jimmie.”

“Lay easy there, ma.”

“They're young, I guess, and gotta have life; but I lay here with it in front of me all night, long after she gets home and is sleepin' here next to me as light as a daisy. She's so little and pretty, Jimmie.”

“I wanna get my glims on him—”

“What, Jimmie?”

“I wanna see him.”

“Me, too, Jimmie. I wouldn't care much about anything else if I could see him once; and if he is big and strong like your father was—”

“That gang don't come big and strong. They got big heads and little necks.”

“The kind of fellow that would know how to treat you when you got stubborn, and would put his hand on your shoulder and not try to drive you. If he was a man like that, Jimmie, the kind you and Essie needs, I—I'd stop fightin'; I'd fold my hands and say to God: 'Ready! Ready right this minute!'”

“Ready for what, ma?”

“Ready, Jimmie, my boy. Just hands folded and ready—that's all.”

“Aw, cut it, can't you, ma? I—ma, quit scarin' a fellow. Quit battin' your eyes like that. Tryin' to flirt with me, ain't you, ma? Quit it, now! Lemme get you some of that black medicine—you're gettin' one of your spells. Lemme run down-stairs and send Lizzie Marks for old man Gibbs?”

“No, no, Jimmie—don't leave me! Hold me, my boy, so I can feel your face. Don't cry, Jimmie; there ain't nothin' to cry about.”

“Cut the comedy, ma! I ain't cryin'; I'm sweatin'.”

“Jimmie, are—you—there? I feel so—so heavy.”

“Sure I am, ma—right here, holding you in my arms. Feel! There's the scar where old Gibbs sewed my face the time I got hit with a bat—feel, ma—see, it's me.”

“What's that, Jimmie, on the foot of the bed movin'?”

“See, ma—that's your flowered glad-rag. You're go-goin' to put it on when Essie and her gen'l'man friend come in. It ain't movin'; I shoved it.”

“Don't muss it, Jimmie.”

“No. See, I smoothed out its tail—it's a sash for you, ma.”

“Jimmie, you won't leave me? It gets so dark and—the mice—”

“You couldn't pry me away with a crowbar, ma! I'll hold you till you yell leggo. Lemme go for old Gibbs, ma; you're breathing heavy as a pump.”

“No, no, Jimmie; don't leave me.”

“Sure I won't; but you're all twitchin' and jumpin', ma. Just leave me run down and send Lizzie Marks for him.”

“No, no, Jimmie; I'm all right.”

“Sure, ma? You—you're actin' up so funny.”

“It ain't nothin'—only I'm an old woman, Jimmie. All of a sudden I got old and broke. It ain't the same in the department, Jimmie, with Essie gone from the notions across the aisle. Always when we were overstocked in the corsets she—she—Essie—”

“Aw, ma, you ain't talkin' straight. Lemme have old man Gibbs.”

“I'm talking straight, Jimmie. Ain't I layin' right here in your arms and ain't my hair caught round one of your brass buttons?—quit pullin', Jimmie! Essie's hair is so bright, Jimmie. I can see it shinin' in the dark when she's sleepin'.”

“Some hair the kid's got! Remember the night you took me and her to—”

“'Sh-h-h-h! Ain't that them coming? Ain't it, Jimmie? I ain't equal to gettin' up, Jimmie. Bring 'em in here and tell—”

“Like fun it's them! Whatta you bet right now they're holding down a table for two at the Palais du Danse? Swell joint!”

“Oh, Gawd, Jimmie!”

“I was kiddin', ma—only kiddin'. Open your eyes, ma. Gwan! Be a sport and open up! Remember, ma, when I was a kid, how I used to make you laff and laff, makin' a noise like a banjo—plunka-plunk-plunk-plunk-plunka-plunk?”

“Yes, Jimmie.”

“I knew I'd get a laff out of you—plunka-plunk-plunka-plunk!”

“Yes, Jimmie, my boy! Go on! I like to lay here and remember back. Essie was always grabbin' your spoon—I used to slap her little hands and—”

“Ma, open your eyes! Don't go off in one of 'em again.”

“See, they're open, Jimmie! I can see your gold buttons shinin' and shinin'—I ain't sleepin'; I'm only waitin'.”

“She ain't had time to get home yet, ma. They gotta pick up programs and turn in lost articles and all.”

“Put your arms round me, Jimmie. I keep slippin' and slippin'.”

“Lemme run for old man Gibbs, ma? Please!”

“No, no, Jimmie. Sing like you used to when you was a little kid, Jimmie; I used to laff and laff.”

“Plunka-plunk-plunk-plunk!”

“'Sh-h-h! There's the chimes—you won't never tell me the right time nights, when I ask you, Jimmie.”

“It ain't late, ma.”

“'Sh-h-h! What time is that? Listen!”

“It's early. Don't you count chimes, ma—it's a sign of snow to count 'em, and Essie's got her thin jacket on. Listen! This is a swell one I know: Plunk! Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!”

“'Sh-h-h, Jimmie! One—two—three—four—five—six—seven—eight—nine—ten—”

“See, it ain't late.”

“'Leven! You can't cheat me; I heard the last one.”

“'Leven already? Well, whatta you know about that? Them chimes is always ahead of themselves.”

“Jimmie, my boy, quit playin' with your old ma.”

“They'll be comin' soon now.”

“Don't leave me, Jimmie.”

“Sure, I won't—see!”

“Jimmie! Jim-mie—”

“Ma! Ma, for Gawd's sakes, open your eyes! Ma darlin'—please—please—”

“Sing, Jimmie, like—a banjo.”

“Plunka-plunk-plunka-plunk!”

       * * * * *

On that last boom of eleven the Stuyvesant Theater swung its doors outward as the portals of a cuckoo clock fly open on the hour, and women in fur-collared, brocaded coats, which wrapped them to the ankles, and carefully curved smiles that Watteau knew so well and Thackeray knew too well, streamed out into the radium-white flare of Broadway, their delicate fingers resting lightly on the tired arms of tired business men, whose faces were like wood-carving and whose wide white shirt-fronts covered their hearts like slabs.

Almost before the last limousine door had slammed, and the last tired business man had felt the light compelling pressure of the delicate finger-tips on his arm and turned his tired eyes from the white lights to the whiter lights of cafés and gold-leaf hotels, the interior of the Stuyvesant Theater, warm and perfumed as the interior of a jewel-box, blinked into soft darkness. Small figures, stealthy espions of the night, padded down thick-carpeted aisles flashing their pocket searchlights now here, now there, folding rows of velvet seats against velvet backs, reaching for discarded programs and seat-checks, gathering up the dainty debris of petals fallen from too-blown roses, an occasional webby handkerchief, an odd glove, a ribbon.

Then the dull-red eyes above the fire-exits blinked out, the sea of twilight deepened, and the small searchlights flashed brighter and whiter, glow-worms in a pit of night.

“For Pete's sakes! Tell Ed to give back them lights; my lamp's burnt out.”

“Oh, hurry up, Essie! You girls up there in the balcony would kick if you was walkin' a tight rope stretched between the top stories of two Flatiron Buildings.”

“It's easy enough for you to talk down there in the orchestra, Lulu Pope. Carriage shoes don't muss up the place like Subway shoes.”

“Gimme the balcony in preference to the orchestra every time.”

“What about us girls 'way up here in the chutes? Whatta you say about us, Lulu Pope—playin' handmaids to the gallery gods?”

“Chutes the same. I used to be in the chutes over at the Olympic, and six nights out of the week I carried water up the aisles without a stop. Lookin' each row in the eye, too!”

“Like fun!”

“Sure's my name's Lulu Pope! Me an' a girl named Della Bradenwald used to play Animal or Vegetable Kingdom every entr'acte with the fireman.”

“Oh-h-h! Say, Loo, you oughtta see what I found up here in Box E!”

“Leave it to Essie Birdsong for a find! What is it this time—the diamond star the blonde queen in Upper E was wearin'?”

“A right-hand, number five and a half—white stitchin'.”

“Can you beat it? And you ain't never had a claim yet at the box-office.”

“I knew my luck would break, Lulu. My little brother Jimmie says if you break a comb your luck breaks with it. I broke one this morning. Whatta you bet now I begin to match every one of my five left-hand gloves, without a claim from the office?”

“Lucky kid!”

Conversation curved from gallery to loge box, and from loge to balcony.

“Gee! Look at this amber butterfly! I seen it in her hair when I steered her down the aisle. She must be stuck on something about this show—third time this week, and not on paper, neither.”

“Amber, is it, Sadie? I'll trade you for the tortoise-shell one I found in G 4; amber'll go swell with my hair.”

“Whatta you bet she claims it?”

“Nix.”

“Say, did you hear Wheelan flivver her big scene to-night? I was dozin' in the foyer and she tripped over her cue so hard she woke me up.”

“I should say so! I was standing next to the old man, and he let out a line of talk that was some fireworks; he said a super in the mob scene could take her place and beat her at pickin' up cues.”

“Ready, Sadie?”

“Yes; wait till I turn in one gent's muffler and a red curl.”

“Are you done up there, too, Essie?”

“Yes; but you needn't wait for me, Loo. If you're in a hurry I'll see you down in the locker-room.”

Seats slammed; laughter drifted; searchlights danced and flashed out as though suddenly doused with water; and the gold, crystal, velvet, and marble interior of the Stuyvesant Theater suddenly vanished into its imminent wimple of blackness.

In the bare-walled locker-room Miss Essie Birdsong leaned to her reflection in the twelve-inch wavy mirror and ran a fine pencil-line along the curves of her eyebrows.

“Is this right, Loo?”

“Swell! Your eyes look two shades darker.”

“Gee!”

Miss Birdsong smiled and leaned closer.

“The girls all out, Loo?”

“Yeh; hurry up and lemme have that mirror, Ess—Harry gets as glum as glue if I keep him waiting.”

Miss Pope adjusted a too-small hat with a too-long pheasant's wing cocked at a too-rakish angle on her brass-colored hair, and powdered at her powdered cheek-bones.

“Here—you can have the mirror first, Loo. I—I ain't in a hurry to-night. You and Harry better go on and not wait round for me.”

Miss Pope placed her long, bird-like hands on her slim hips and slumped inward at the waist-line; her eyes had the peculiar lambency of the blue flame that plays on the surface of cognac and leaves it cold.

“What's hurtin' you, Ess? The whole week you been makin' this play to dodge me and Harry. If you don't like our company, Doll-doll, me and Harry can manage to worry along somehow.”

“Oh, Lulu, it—it ain't that, and you know it.”

“You're all alike. Didn't my last chum, Della Bradenwald, do the same thing? I interdooced her to a gen'l'man friend of mine, a slick little doorman for a two-day show, and what did she do? Scat! After the second day it was good-by, Loo-Loo! They went kitin' it off together and dropped me and Harry like parachutes!”

“Loo, darlin', honest, me and Joe just love goin' round dancin' with you and Harry; but—but—”

“Then what's hurtin' you?”

“It's ma again, Loo. She looked like she was ready for one of her spells when I left; she's been worse again these two days, and the doctor says we mustn't get her excited—her heart's bum, Loo.”

“Say, I used to have heart failure myself, and I know a swell cure—Hartley's Heart's Ease. Honest, when I was over at the Olympic I used to go dead like a tire. Lend me your eyestick, Ess.”

“You'll laff, Loo; but she's daffy for me and Joe to come home after the show; she's never seen him at all, and—”

“Oh, Gawd, I gotta flashlight of Joe!”

“When ma and I was clerkin' the girls and fellows always used to come to our flat, Loo; and, say, for fun! Ma was as lively as any of us in those days; and we'd have sardine sandwiches, and my kid brother used to imitate all kinds of music and actors; and we used to laff and laff until they'd knock on the ceiling from up-stairs and ma'd pack the whole lot of 'em home. Why don't you and Harry come up to-night, too, Loo? And we'll have a little doin's.”

“Nothin' doin', Beauty. There's a Free-for-All Tango Contest round at the Poppy Garden to-night; and, believe me, I wouldn't mind winning that pink ivory manicure set. All I gotta ask is one thing, Ess! Bring me a snapshot of Joe doing the fireside act!”

The glaze of unshed tears sprang over Miss Birdsong's eyes like gauzy clouds across a summer sky.

“I—that's just it, Loo. I can't get him to come. Sometimes I think maybe it's just because he's stringing me along; and I—he—he was your friend first, Loo. Ain't he ever said anything to you about me—about—aw, you know what I mean, Loo?”

“He's hipped on you, girl. I know Joe Ullman like I know the floor-plan of this theater.”

“Honest, Loo, do you think so?”

“Sure! Gawd! I knew Joe when I was making sateen daisies in a artificial-flower loft on Twenty-second Street; and him and my brother was clerkin' in a cigar store on Twenty-third and running a neat little book on the side.”

“A book?”

“Yes, dearie—a pretty picture-book.”

“Joe never told me.”

“He ain't always been the thirty-dollar-a-week kid he is now—take it from me. Just the same, you can thank me for interdoocing you to the sharpest little fellow that's selling tickets on the sidewalks of this great and wicked city.”

“I always tell him he ought to save more—taxis and all he has to have, that spendy he is!”

“Sidewalk speculatin' is a good pastime if you're sharp enough; and I always tell Joe he's got a edge on him like a razor.”

“Like a razor! Aw, Loo, you talk like he was a barber.”

“Sure, he's that sharp! Take Harry now: he's as slick as a watermelon-seed when it comes to pickin' a sheet of music with a whistle in it; but put him in a game like Joe's, with the law cross-eyed from winkin' and frownin' at the same time, and he'd lose his nerve.”

“It ain't a game, Loo. Joe says there ain't a reason why a fellow can't sell a theater ticket at a profit, just like Harry sells a sheet of music. Sidewalks are free for all.”

“Leave it to Joe to stretch the language like a rubber band. His middle name is Gutta-Percha.”

“He was your friend first.”

“He is yet, Beauty—even if you have grabbed him. I like him—he's one good sport; but with Joe's gift for tongue-work he could make a jury believe a Bowery jewelry store ought to have a habeas corpus for every body it snatches; he could rob a cradle and get a hero medal for it.”

“I—sometimes I—I don't know how to take him, Loo. We've been goin' together steady now; and sometimes I think he—he likes me, and sometimes I think he don't.”

“Take it from me, you got him going. I never knew him to take a five-evenings-a-week lease on anybody's time.”

“Six.”

“Six! For all I know, you—you're keepin' things from me. Lemme see your left hand—whatta you blushing for, Beauty? Whatta you blushing for?”

“Aw, Loo!”

“Say, how does this jacket look, Ess? Half them judges over there at the Poppy watch your clothes more'n your feet.”

“Swell!”

“Well, is this where me and Harry exit, Beauty?”

“Yeh; you go ahead, Loo. I—I'll tell Joe you and Harry went on ahead to-night.”

“I gotta half bottle of Hartley's Heart's Ease at home, Ess. Tell your old lady to have it on me. Don't you worry, kiddo. I used to have heart trouble so bad I'd breathe like a fish at a shore dinner—and look at me now! I'll bring it to-morrow—a tablespoonful before meals.”

“Good night, Loo. I'll see you Monday.”

“Put on a little more color there, Doll, or you'll never get nothin' out of him. You look as scared as an oyster. Lordy, you can handle him easy! Lemme know what happens. S'long! S'long!”

“Good night, Loo!”

Miss Birdsong brushed at her soft cheeks with the pink tip of a rabbit's foot, and the color sprang out to match the rose-colored sateen facing of her hat. Her lips opened in a faint smile; and after a careful interval she scrambled into her jacket, flung a good-night kiss to the doorman, and hurried through the gloomy foyer.

No sham like the sham of the theater! Its marble façade is classic as a temple, and its dirty gray-brick rear opens out on a cat-infested alley. The perfumes of the auditorium are the fumes of the wings. Thespis wears a custom-made coat of many colors, but his undershirt is sackcloth.

Miss Birdsong stepped out of a gold and mauve hallway, through a grimy side-door, and into an area as black as a pit; and out from its blackest shadows a figure rose to meet her.

“Joe?”

“Yeh; where's Loo and Harry?”

“I dunno; they—they went on.”

“Hurry up, Beauty. I ain't so much of a favorite round this theater that I can bask in this sunny spot.”

“I didn't mean to keep you waitin' so long, Joe.”

“Believe me, you're the foist little girl I ever hung round an usher's exit for.”

“Honest, am I, Joe?”

“Surest thing! The stage-door is my pace, and for nothing short of head-liners, neither. I gotta like a girl pretty well to hang round on the wrong side of the footlights for her, sweetness.”

“Joe, I—I wish I knew if you was kiddin'.”

“Kiddin' nothin'!”

They emerged into the white shower from a score of arc-lights; and Mr. Joe Ullman, an apotheosis of a classy-clothes tailor's dearest dream, in his brown suit, brown-bordered silk handkerchief nicely apparent, brown derby hat and tan-top shoes, turned his bulldog toes and fox-terrier eyes to the north, where against a fulvous sky the Palais du Danse spelled itself in ruby and emerald incandescents with the carefully planned effect of green moonlight floating in a mist of blood.

“Joe”—she dragged gently at his coat-sleeve, and a warm pink spread out from under the area of rouge—“Joe, you know what you promised for to-night?”

“What, kiddo? The sky's my limit. I'll taxi you till the meter gives out. I'll buy you—”

“You have promised so long, Joe. Come on! Let's go up home to-night. Be a sport, and let's go. Ma's got a midnight supper waitin', and—”

“The doctor says home cookin's bad for me, sweetness.”

He cocked his hat slightly askew, stroked a chin as blue as a priest's, and winked down at her.

“Honest, sweetness, I'm going to buy you a phonograph record of 'Home Sweet Home Ain't Sweet Enough for Me'—”

“She's waitin' up for us, Joe; she ain't hardly able to be up, but she's waitin', Joe.”

“Ain't I told you I'm going up with you some night when I'm in the humor for it? I feel like a ninety-horse-power dancer to-night, Doll. Whatta you bet I sold more seats for your show to-night than the box-office? Whatta you bet?”

“Joe—you promised.”

“Sure, and I'm going to keep it; but I'm wearin' a celluloid collar to-night, hon, and the fireside ain't no place for me. I wouldn't wanna blow your mamma to smithereens.”

“Joe!”

“I wouldn't—honest, sweetness, I wouldn't.”

“Joe, comin' to our house ain't like bein' company—honest! When the boys and girls from the store used to come over we'd roll back the carpets, and ma'd play on an old comb and Jimmie'd make a noise like a banjo, and—”

“Hear! Hear! You sound like 'Way Down East' gone into vaudeville.”

“Come on up to-night, Joe—like you promised.”

“We'll talk it over a little later, sweetness. Midnight ain't no time to call on your best girl's dame. What'll she be thinkin' of us buttin' in there for midnight supper? To-morrow night's Sunday—that'll be more like it.”

“She got it waitin' for us, Joe. All week she been fixing every night, and us not comin'. She knows it's the only time we got, Joe. She says she'd rather have us come home after the show than go kiting round like this. Honest, Joe, she's regular sport herself. She used to be the life of her department; the girls used to laff and laff at her cuttings-up. She's achin' to see you, Joe. She knows I we—she don't talk about nothin' else, Joe; and she's sick—it scares me to think how sick maybe she is.” He leaned to her upturned face; tears trembled on her lashes and in her voice. “Please, Joe!”

“To-morrow night, sure, little Essie Birdsong. Gawd, what a name! Why didn't they call you—”

“They always used to call us the Songbirds at the store.”

“Look, will you? Read—'Tango Contest next Monday night!' Are you game, little one? We'd won the last if they'd kept the profesh off the floor. Come on! Let's go in and practise for it.”

“Not to-night, Joe, please. We're only four blocks from home, and it ain't right, our keepin' company like this every night for three months and not goin'. It ain't right.”

He paused in the sea of green moonlight before the gold threshold of the Palais du Danse, whose caryatides were faun-eyed Mænads and Ægipans. The gold figure of a Cybele in a gold chariot raced with eight reproductions of herself in an octagonal mirror-lined foyer, and a steady stream of Corybantes bought admission tickets at twenty-five cents a Corybant.

Phrygian music, harlequined to meet the needs of Forty-second Street and its anchorites, flared and receded with the opening and closing of gilded doors.

“Come on, girlie! To-morrow night we'll do the fireside proper.”

“You never—nev-er do anything I ask you to, Joe. You jolly me along and jolly me along, and then—do nothing.”

He released her suddenly, plunged his hands into his pockets, and slumped in his shoulders.

“I don't, don't I? That's the way with you girls—a fellow ties hisself up like a broken arm in a sling, and that's the thanks he gets! Ain't I quit playin' pool? Didn't I swear to you on your little old Sunday-school book to cut out pool? Didn't the whole gang gimme the laff? Ain't I cuttin' everything—ain't I?—pool and cards—pool and all?”

“I know, Joe; but—”

“You gotta quit naggin' me about the fireside game, sis. I'm going to meet your dame some day—sure I am; but you gotta let me take my time. You gotta let me do it my way—you gotta quit naggin' me. A fellow can't stand for it.”

“She's sick, Joe.”

“Sure she is; and to-morrow night we'll buy her an oyster loaf or something and take it home to her. How's that, kiddo?”

“That ain't what she wants, Joe—it's us.”

“I just ain't home-broke—that's all's the matter with me. Put me in a parlor, and I get weak-kneed as a cat—bashful as a banshee! You gotta let me do it my way, Peaches and Cream. Just like a twenty-five-cent order of 'em you look, with them eyes and cheeks and hair. To-morrow night, sweetness—huh?”

“Honest, Joe?”

“Cross my heart and bet on a dark horse!”

She slid her hand into the curve of his elbow, her incertitude vanishing behind the filmy cloud of a smile.

“All right, Joe; to-morrow night, sure. You walk as far as home with me now, and—”

“Gawd bless my soul! You ain't going to leave me at the church, are you?”

“I gotta go right home, Joe.”

“Gee! Why didn't you tell a fellow? I could have tied up ten times over for a Saturday night. There's a little dancer over at the Orpheum would have let out a six-inch smile for the pleasure of my company to-night. Gee! you're a swell little sport—nix!”

“Joe!”

“Come on in for ten minutes, and if you're right good I'll shoot you home in a taxi-cab just as quick as if we went now. Just ten minutes, sweetness.”

“No more, Joe.”

“Cross my heart and bet on a dark horse—just ten minutes.”

She smiled at him from the corners of her shadowed eyes and stepped into the tessellated foyer.

“Satisfied now, Mr. Smarty?” she said, smiling at eight reflections of herself and swaying to the rippling flute notes and violin phrases that wandered out to meet them.

“You're all right, sweetness!”

Within the Sheban elegance of the overlighted, overheated, overgilded dining and dance hall his pressure of her arm tightened and the blood ran in her veins a searing flame.

“Gee! Look at the jam, Joe!”

“Over there's a table for two, sweet—right under them green lights.”

“Say, whatta you know about that? There's that same blonde girl, Joe, we been seein' everywhere. Honest, she follows us round every place we go—her and that fellow that was dancing up at the Crescent last night—remember?”

They drew up before a marble-topped table, one of a phalanx that flanked a wide-open space of hard-wood floor, like coping round a sunken pool; and his eyes took a rapid résumé of the polyphonic room.

“Good crowd out to-night, sweetness. They all know us, too.”

“Yes.”

“Wanna dance and show 'em we're in condition?”

“No, Joe.”

The music flared suddenly; chairs were pushed back from their tables, leaving food and drink in the attitude of waiting. A bolder couple or two ventured out on the shining floor-space, hesitant like a premonitory ripple on the water before the coming of the wind; another and yet another. And almost instanter there was the intricate maze of a crowded floor—women swaying, men threading in, out, around.

“What'll you have to drink, sweetness?”

“Lemonade, please.”

“I know a better one than that.”

“What?”

“Condensed milk!”

“Silly! I just can't get used to them bitter-tasting things you try out on me.”

“You're all right, little Lemonade Girl!”

He leaned across the table and peered under the pink sateen. Its reflection lay like a blush of pleasure across her features, and she kept her gaze averted, with a pretty malaise trembling through her.

“You're all right, little Peaches and Cream.”

“You—you're all right, too, Joe.”

“You mean that, sweetness?”

“I mean it if you mean it.”

“Do I mean it! Say, do I give a little queen like you my company eight nights out of seven for the fun of kiddin' myself along?”

“I know you ain't, Joe; that's what I keep tellin' ma.”

“Sittin' there screwing your lips at me like that! You got a mouth just like—just like red fruit, like a cherry that would bust all over the place if a bird took a peck at it.”

Her bosom, little as Juliet's, rose to his words, and she giggled after the immemorial fashion of women.

“Oh, Joe! If only—if only—if only—”

“If only what, sweetness?”

“If only—”

“Huh?”

“Aw, I can't say it.”

“Whistle it, then, sweetness.”

“It don't do us no good to talk about things, Joe. We—we never get anywhere.”

“What's the use o' talking, then, sweetness? Here's your lemonade. I wish I was in the baby-food class—'pon my soul I do! Look, sweetness; this is the stuff, though. Look at its color, will you? Red as a moonshiner's eye! Here, waiter, leave that siphon; I might wanna shoot up the place.”

“You promised, Joe, not—”

“Sure; I ain't goin' to, neither. Did I keep my pool promise? Ain't heard a ball click for weeks! Will I keep this one? Watch! Two's my limit, Peaches. I'd swear off sleepin' if you wanted me to.”

“Would you, Joe? That's what I want you to tell ma when—”

“Aw, there you go again! Honest, the minute a fellow feels hisself warming up inside you begin tryin' to reach up to the church-tower and ring the bells.”

“Joe!”

“Sure you do.”

“You make me ashamed when you talk like that.”

“Then cut it, sweetness. Come on; let's finish out this dance.”

“It worries her so, Joe. She asks and asks till I—I don't know what to say no more when I see her wastin' away and all. I—Gawd, I don't know!”

“For Gawd's sakes, don't leak any tears here, Ess! This gang here knows me. Ain't I told you I like you, girl? I like you well enough to do anything your little heart de-sires; but this ain't the place to talk about it.”

“That's what you always say, Joe; no place is the place.”

“Gee, ain't it swell enough just the way we are—just like it is, us knocking round together? I ain't your settling-down kind, sister. You're one little winner, and I like your style o' sweetness, but I ain't what you'd call a homesteader.”

“Joe!”

“Sure; I mean it. I like you well enough to do any little thing your heart desires; but I never look far ahead, hon. I'm near-sighted.”

“What—what about me?”

“I ain't got nothing saved up—not a dime. You tell your dame—you tell her we—we just understand each other. Huh? How's that? That's fair enough, ain't it?”

“Whatta you mean, Joe? You always say that; but please, Joe, please tell me what you mean?”

“Listen, kiddo. Say, listen to that trot they're playin', will you? Come on, sis; be a sport! To-morrow night we'll talk about anything your little heart desires. Come on, one round! Don't make me sore.”

“Aw, no, Joe; I gotta go.”

“One round, sweetness—see, I'll pay the check. See, two rounds round, and we'll light out for home. Look, they're all watchin' for us—two rounds, sweetness.”

“One, you just said, Joe.”

“One, then, little mouse.”

They rose to the introductory titillation of violins; she slid into his embrace with a little fluid movement, and they slithered out on the shining floor. A light murmur like the rustle of birds' wings went after them, and couples leaned from their tables to watch the perfect syncopation of their steps. His slightly crepuscular eyes took on the sheen of mica; the color ran high in her face, and her lips parted.

“They sit up and take notice when we slide out, don't they, little one?”

“Yes.”

“Some class to my trotting, ain't there, sweetness?”

“Yeh. Look, Joe; we gotta go after this round—it's nearly twelve.”

“Twice round, sweetness, and then we go. If we ain't got the profesh beat on that Argentine Dip I'll give ten orchestra seats to charity and let any box-office in this town land me for what I'm worth.”

“Joe!”

“Aw, I was only kiddin'. They got as much chance with me as a man with Saint Vitus's dance has of landing a trout. Gee, you're pretty to-night, sweetness!”

“Sweetness yourself!”

“Peaches and Cream!”

“Come on, Joe; this is twice round.”

“Once more, sweetness—just once more! See, you got me hypnotized; my feet won't stop. See, they keep going and going. See, I can't stop. Whoa! Whoa! Honest, I can't quit! Whoa! We gotta go round once more, sweetness. I—just—can't—stop!”

“Just once more, Joe.”

       * * * * *

At one o'clock the gas-flame in the hallway outside the rear third-floor apartment flared sootily and waned to a weary bead as the pressure receded. Through the opacity of the sudden fog the formal-faced door faded into the gloom, and Miss Essie Birdsong pushed the knob stealthily inch by inch to save the squeak.

“Plunk-plunk-plunka-plunka-plunk-plunk! Essie?”

“'Sh-h-h-h! Yes, Jimmie—it's only me. Why you makin' that noise? Why's the light burning? What's—”

“Essie! Essie, is that you and—”

“Ma dearie, you—What's the matter? You ain't sick, are you? What's—what's wrong, Jimmie? Please, what's wrong?”

She stood with her back to the door, her face struck with fear suddenly, as with white forked lightning, and her breath coming on every alternate heart-beat.

“Ma! Jimmie! For Gawd's sakes, what's the matter?”

The transitional falsetto of her brother's voice came to her gritty as slate scratching slate, and cold, prickly flesh sprang out over her.

“Don't come in here! You—you and your friend stay out there a minute till ma kinda gets her breath back; she—she's all right—ain't you, ma? You and your friend just wait just a minute, Ess.”

“Me and—-”

“Yeh; both of you wait. Nothing ain't wrong—is it, ma? There, just lay back on the pillow a minute, ma. Gwan; be a sport! Look, your cheek's all red from restin' on my shoulder so long. Lemme go a minute and bring Essie and her gen'l'man friend in to see you. Gee! After you been waitin' and waitin' you—you ain't goin' to give out the last minute. There ain't nothin' to be scared about, ma. Lemme go in just a minute. Here it is, ma; don't break it—seven years' bad luck for smashin' a hand-mirror. Here; you look swell, ma—swell!”

“Tell him it ain't like me to give out like this. Take them bottles and that ice away, Jimmie—throw my flowered wrapper over my shoulders. There! Now tell him, Jimmie, it ain't like me.”

“Surest thing, ma. Watch me!”

He emerged from the bedroom suddenly, his face twisted and his whispering voice like cold iron under the stroke of an anvil, and Essie trembled as she stood.

“Jimmie!”

“You—you devil, you! Where is he?”

She edged away from him with limbs that seemed as though they took root at every step and she must tear each foot from the carpet.

“To-morrow night he's comin' sure, Jimmie; he couldn't to-night, he—couldn't.”

Jimmie's lips drew back from his gums as though too dry to cover them.

“You—you street-runner, you!”

“Jimmie!”

“You—you—you—”

“For Gawd's sakes, she'll hear you, Jimmie!”

“You devil, you! You've killed her, I tell you! I've been holdin' her in there for two hours, with the sweat standing out on her like water—you—”

“Oh, Gawd! Jimmie, lemme run for old man Gibbs; lemme—”

“Oh no, you don't! Lizzie Marks down-stairs is gone for him—but that ain't goin' to help none; what she wants is you—you and your low-down sneaking friend; and she's goin' to have him, too.”

“He's gone, Jimmie. What—”

“You can't come home here to-night without him—you can't! You better run after him, and run after him quick. You can't come home here to-night without him, I tell you! Whatta you going to do about it—huh? Whatta you going to do? Quick! What?”

She trembled so she grasped the back of a chair for support, and tears ricocheted down her cheeks.

“I can't, Jimmie! He's gone by now; he's gone by now—out of sight. I can't! Please, Jimmie! I'll tell her! I'll tell her! Don't—don't you dare come near me! I'll go, Jimmie—I'll go. 'Sh-h-h!”

“You gotta get him—you can't come here to-night without him. I ain't goin' to stand for her not seeing him to-night. I—I don't care how you get him, but you ain't going to kill her! You gotta get him, or I'll—”

“Jimmie—'sh-h-h!”

“Jimmie, tell him it ain't like me to give out like this. Tell—”

“Yes, ma.”

“Yes, ma—we're comin'. Joe's waitin' down at the door. I'll run down and bring him up; he—he's so bashful. In a minute, ma darlin'.”

She flung open the door and fled, racing down two flights of stairs, with her steps clattering after her in an avalanche, and out into a quiet street, which sprung echoes of her flying feet.

After midnight every pedestrian becomes a simulacrum, wrapped in a black domino of mystery and a starry ephod of romance. A homeward-bound pedestrian is a faun in evening dress. Fat-and-forty leans from her window to hurtle a can at a night-yelling cat and becomes a demoiselle leaning out from the golden bar of Heaven.

In the inspissated gloom of the street occasional silhouettes hurried in silent haste; and a block ahead of her, just emerging into a string of shop lights, she could distinguish the uneven-shouldered outline of Joe Ullman and the unmistakable silhouette of his slightly askew hat.

She sobbed in her throat and made a cup of her hands to halloo; but her voice would not come, and she ran faster.

A policeman glanced after her and struck asphalt. A dog yapped at her tall heels. Even as she sped, her face upturned and her mouth dry and open, the figure swerved suddenly into a red-lighted doorway with a crescent burning above it; and, with her eyes on that Mecca, she pulled at her strength and gathered more speed.

The crescent grew in size and redness, and its lettering sprang out; and suddenly she stopped, as suddenly as an engine jerking up before a washout.

    CRESCENT POOL AND BILLIARD ROOM—
             OPEN ALL NIGHT

And her heart folded inward like the petals of a moonflower.

Stretched to the limit of their resilience, the nerves act reflexly. The merest second of incertitude, and then automatically she swung about, turned her blood-driven face toward the place from whence she came and groped her way homeward as Polymestor must have groped after being blinded in the presence of Hecuba.

Tears hot from the geyser of shame and pain magnified her eyes like high-power spectacle-lenses; and when she reached the dim entrance of the cliff dwelling she called home an edge of ice stiffened round her heart and her feet would not enter.

A silhouette lurched round a black corner and zigzagged toward her, and she held herself flat as a lath against the building until it and its drunken song had lurched round another corner; a couple hurried past with interlinked arms; their laughter light as foam. More silhouettes—a flat-chested woman, who wore her shame with the conscious speciousness of a prisoner promenading in his stripes; a loutish fellow, who whistled as he hurried and vaulted up the steps of the Electric Institute three steps at a bound; an old man with an outline like a crooked finger; a shawled woman; a cab lined with vague faces, and streamers of laughter floating back from it; and, standing darkly against the cold wall, Essie, with the tears drying on her cheeks, and her whole being suddenly galvanized by a new thought.

A momentary lull in the drippy streamlet of pedestrians; she leaned out into the darkness and peered up, then down the aisle of street. A shadow came gliding toward her, and she stepped forward; but when the street-lamp fell on the cold eyes and cuttlefish stare she huddled back into her corner until the steps had receded like the stick-taps of a blind man.

Two women in the professional garb of nurses twinkled past, twitting each to each like sparrows; a man whose face was narrow and dark, bespeaking in his ancestry a Latin breed, kept close to the shadow of the buildings; and, with her finger-nails cutting her palms, she stepped out from her lair directly in his path and clasped her hands tighter to keep them from trembling.

“You—please!”

He glanced down at her yellowish face, with the daubed-on red standing out frankly, tossed her a sneer and a foreign expression, and brushed by. She darted back as though he had struck at her, and panic closed her in.

A young giant, tall as a Scandinavian out of Valhalla, with wide shoulders, a wide stride, and heavy-soled, laced-to-the-knee boots that clattered loudly, ran up the steps of the Electric Institute, and she flashed across the sidewalk, her arm reaching out.

“You—please!”

He paused, with the street lamp full on his smiling mouth and wide-apart, smiling eyes, one foot in the act of ascending, after the manner of tailors' fashion-plates, which are for ever in the casual attitude of mounting stairs.

“You—please! Please—”

“Aw, little lady, go home and go to bed. This ain't no time and place for a little thing like you. Here, take this and go home, little girl.”

She arrested his arm on its way to his pocket, her breath crowding out her words, and the stinging red of shame burning through her rouge.

“No, no! For Gawd's sakes, no! It's—my mother—”

He brought his feet down to a level.

“Your mother?”

“Yes; she's sick—maybe dyin'. I—please—she wants to see somebody that can't—can't—”

“What, little lady?”

“She's sick—dyin' maybe. She wants to see somebody that can't—can't—”

“Take your time, little lady—can't what?”

“Can't come.”

“Who can't come?”

“He—my young—he's a young man. She's never seen him; and if—please, if you'd come and act super—just like you was fillin' in at a show; if you'd act like my young man just for a minute—please! My friend, he can't come—he can never come; but she—she wants him. You come, please! You come, please!”

She tugged at his arm, and he descended another step and peered into the exacerbated anxiety of her face.

“On the level, little lady?”

“Please—just for a minute! For somebody that's sick—maybe dyin'. Just tell her you're my young man—tell her everything's all right—everything's comin' all right for all of us, for her and—and my little brother, and—and me—you and me—like you was my young man, please, lovin' and all. And tell her how pretty her poor hair is and how everything's goin'—goin' to be all right. Come, please—it's just next door.”

“Why, you poor little thing! I ain't much on play-actin'; and look at my hands all black from the power-house!”

“Please! That ain't nothin'. It'll be only a minute. Just kinda say things after me and don't let her know—don't let her know that I—I ain't got any young man. Don't let her know!”

“You poor little thing, you—shaking like a leaf! Lead the way; but not so fast, little lady—you'll give out.”

She cried and laughed her relief and dragged him across the sidewalk; and every step up the two flights she struggled to keep her hysterical voice within the veil of a whisper.

“Just say everythin' right after me. You—you're my young man and real sweet on me; and we're going to get—you know; everythin' is goin' to be fine, and my little brother's going to the Electric Institute, and everythin's goin' to be swell. Be right lovin' to her, sir—she's so sick. Oh, Gawd, I—”

“Don't cry, little girl.”

“I ain't cryin'.”

“Careful; don't stumble.”

“Don't you stumble. Can you see? The landing's so dark.”

“Yes; I can see by the shine of your hair, little lady.”

“'Sh-h-h-h!”

The door stood open at the angle she had left it, and by proxy of the slab of mirror over the mantelpiece she could see her mother's head propped against her brother's gold-braided shoulder, and the bright eyes shining out like a gazelle's in the dark.

“Essie?”

“We are here, ma—me and Joe.” She threw a last appeal over her shoulder and led the way into the bedroom; her companion followed, stooping to accommodate his height to the doorway.

“Ma dearie, this is Joe.”

“Joe! It ain't like me, Joe, not to get up; but I just ain't got the strength—to-night, Joe.”

He bent his six-feet-two over the bed and smiled at her from close range.

“Well, well, well! So this is ma dear, dearie?”

“That's her, Joe.”

“This won't do one bit, ma. Me and the little lady's got to get you cured up in a hurry—don't we, little lady?”

“Ma dearie, Joe's been wantin' and wantin' to come for so long.”

[Illustration: SHE HELD UP A HAND AS LIGHT AS A LEAF, AND HE TOOK IT IN A WIDE, GENTLE CLASP THAT ENVELOPED IT]

“For so long I been wantin' to come, ma dearie; but—”

“But he's so bashful. Ain't you, Joe? Bashful as a banshee.”

“Bashful ain't no name for me, ma. I'd shy at a baby.”

“Honest, ma dearie, he's as shy as anything.”

“If I wasn't, wouldn't I have been up to see my little lady's mother long ago—wouldn't I? Ain't you going to shake hands with me, ma dearie?”

She held up a hand as light as a leaf, and he took it in a wide, gentle clasp that enveloped it.

“Ma dearie!”

Her violet lids fluttered, and she lay back from the gold-braided shoulder to her pillow, but smiling.

“I like your hand, Joe; I like it.”

“I want you to, ma.”

“We—I was afraid, Joe, I wouldn't, you never comin' at all. Shake it, Jimmie, and see.”

“Aw!”

“It's a strong hand, like your papa's was, Essie. Shake it, Jimmie. I feel just like cryin', it's so good. Shake it, Jimmie.”

Across the chasm of youth's prejudice Jimmie held out a reluctant hand.

“And this is the big brother, is it, little lady?”

“That's what he calls hisself, Joe—he calls me his little sister.”

“He's gotta be a big brother to her, Joe; she's so—so little.”

“Shake, old man; and take off that grouch. Over where I live a fellow'd be fined ten cents for that scowl. If we got anything to square, you and me'll square it outside after school. What do you say to that, ma dearie? Ain't it right?”

“Jimmie's tired out, Joe.”

“Like fun I am!”

“He's been proppin' me up all these hours so I could breathe easier—plunkin' and doin' all his funny kid stunts for his old ma, Essie—plunkin' like a banjo, and plunkin'. I liked it. Sometimes it was like I was floatin' in a skiff with your papa on Sunday afternoons in the park, Essie. I liked it. He's all tired out—ain't you, Jimmie, my boy?”

“Naw!”

“He's sore at his sister, Joe. But he's a good boy and smart; you wouldn't believe it, Joe, but when it comes to mechanics he—he's just grand.”

“Aw, cut it, ma! I ain't strikin' to make a hit.”

“He's only tired, Joe, and don't mean nothin' he says.”

“Naw; I'm only tryin' my voice out for grand opery!”

“You're a regular sorehead with me, ain't you, old man?”

“Aw!”

“He ain't easy at makin' up with strangers, Joe; but he's a smart one. See that on the table? That's his self-chargin' dynamo; it's a great invention, Joe, the janitor says. You tell him about it, Jimmie.”

“There ain't nothin' to tell.”

“Don't believe it, Joe; the janitor's a electrician, and he says—”

“Aw!”

“See! There it is, Joe.”

“Aw, I don't want everybody pokin' and nosin'!”

“Lemme have a look at it, old man. I know something about dynamos myself. Say, that looks like a neat little idea. How does she work?”

“See—you generate right down in here. See? She worked that time, ma.”

“Jimminycracks! Where'd you get your juice and—Well, well! Whatta you know about that? Don't even have to reverse. I guess that storage down there ain't some stunt!”

“See, Jimmie, my boy! I told you it was a grand invention. Hear what Joe says?”

“Say, kid, you bring that—take that over to the Institute to-morrow. I know a fellow over there'll protect your rights and work that out with you swell.”

“See, Jimmie, your—your old ma was right!”

“Aw, the generator don't always work like that—only about four times out of six. I'm kinda stuck on the—”

“Say, kid, what you wanna do is protect your rights on that, and—and bring it over—take it over to the Institute. You'll give 'em the jolt of their lives over there. I know a fellow's been chasin' this idea ten years, and you're fifty per cent. closer to the bull's-eye than he is.”

“Hear, Jimmie! Hear, Essie! Just like I been sayin'. I been beggin' and beggin' him, Joe, but he—he's so stubborn; and—”

“Aw, ma, cut it, can't you?”

“He's so stubborn about it, Joe.”

“There's no use tryin' to force him, ma; but he's gotta good idea there if he handles it right.”

“Aw, she ain't finished yet—she don't spark right.”

“That what I'm telling you, kid. What you need is a laboratory, where you've got the stuff to work with and men who can give you a steer where you need it, and—”

“Aw!”

“I'll go over with you. I know a fellow over there—he's the guy that helped Kinney win his transmitter prize. You'll give him the jolt of his life, old man. Huh, kid? Wanna go over?” He placed his hand on the gold-braided shoulder and smiled down. “Huh? You on, old man?”

“Aw, I ain't much for buttin' in places.”

“Are you on, Jimmie? It's your chance, old man.”

“Aw!”

“Jimmie! Jimmie, my boy, I—”

“Aw, I said I was on, didn't I, ma?”

“Sure, he said he was on, ma dearie. Shake on it, old man!”

“Jimmie! Jimmie, my boy—honest!—it's just like your papa was talkin'! Don't leggo my hand, Joe. Layin' here with my eyes shut, it's just like he was talkin' hisself. He's—he's like your papa was, Essie, big and strong.”

“Yes, darlin'.”

“Is that the doctor? Is Lizzie Marks come back? Is that—”

“No; not yet, ma.”

“You're all tired out, Essie baby. Look at your little face! Go wash it, baby, and cool it off before old man Gibbs comes.”

“It ain't hot, ma.”

“He brought you into the world, Essie baby, and I don't want him to see it—to see it all—all—”

“I'm all right, ma. Lemme stay by you.”

“Go wash your face, Ess. Ma says go wash your face.”

“You shut up, Jimmie Birdsong—it ain't your face!”

“You know all righty, missy, why she wants you to wash it—you know—”

“Ma, he keeps fussin' with me! Jimmie, please don't.”

“Aw, I ain't, neither, ma. She's always peckin' at me. I—I ain't mad at her; but I want her to wash that—that stuff off her face.”

“Jimmie!”

Her lips quivered, and she glanced toward the stranger, with her lips drooping over her eyes like curtains to her shame; and he smiled at her with eyes as soft as spring rain, his voice a caress.

“Go, little lady. You're all tired out and too pretty and too sweet not to wash your face and—cool it off.”

“She's gotta go, or I'll get her in a corner and rub—”

“I'm goin', ain't I, Jimmie? Honest, the minute we make up you begin pickin' a fuss again.”

“Oh, my children!”

“Oh, Gawd, there she goes off again! Why don't old man Gibbs come? Lay her down, Joe; she can't breathe that way. Look! Her hands are all blue-like. Hold her up, Joe! Oh, Gawd, why don't old man Gibbs come? She's all shakin'—all shakin'!”

“No, I ain't. What you cryin' there at the foot of the bed for, Essie? It ain't no time to cry now, darlin'. It's like it says on the crocheted lamp-mat your papa's aunt did for us—'God is Good!' Where is that mat, Essie? I—I ain't seen it round for—so—long. God is good! God—is—good! Where is that mat, Essie?”

“It's round somewheres, ma. It's old and worn out—in the rag-bag, maybe.”

“Well get it out, Essie.”

“Yes, ma.”

“Promise, Essie!”

“Sure, ma; we'll get it out and keep it out.”

“Oh, Joe, why did you keep us waitin' and waitin'? She's so little and pretty. Look at her dimples, Joe, even when she's cryin'. The prettiest girl in the notions, she was; and I—I been so scared for her, Joe. Why did you keep us waitin' and waitin'?”

“Me and the little girl was slow in getting here, ma; but we—we're here for good now—ain't we, little lady? Little lady with the hair just like ma's!”

“She gets it from me, Joe. Her papa used to say her hair was like the copper trimmings of his machines. Such machines he kept, Joe! His boss told me hisself they were just like looking-glasses, Essie, come closer, darlin'. You won't forget the lamp-mat, will you, darlin'—the lamp-mat?”

“Oh no, ma. Oh, Gawd! Ma, you ain't mad at me? Please—please! Honest, ma, your little Essie didn't know.”

“Ma knows we didn't know, little lady. She ain't mad at us. She's glad that everything's going to be all right now; and you and her and Jimmie and me are—”

“Oh, my children!”

She smiled and slipped her fingers between her daughter's face and the coverlet.

“Look up, Essie! I feel so light! I feel so light! It's like it says on the lamp-mat—just like it says, Essie.”

“Ma! Ma darlin', open your eyes!”

“Ma!”

“Here, Jimmie, lend a hand! Lemme hold her up—so! No; don't give her any more of that black stuff, Jimmie, old man. Wait till the doctor comes. Let her lie quiet on my arm—just like that; and hand me that ammonia-bottle there, Essie, like a sweet little lady. See there! She's coming round all right. Who says she ain't coming to? Now, ma—now!”

“Joe, don't leggo me!”

“Sure I won't, ma dearie.”

She warmed to life slightly, and the tears seeped through her closed eyes, and she felt of his supporting arm down the length of his sleeve.

“Joe! Essie, that you?”

“Ma darlin', we're all here.”

“Don't cry, little lady. See, she's coming out of it all right. Here, gimme a lift, Jimmie. See there! She's got her breath all right again.”

They laid her back on the pillow, and she folded her hands lightly, ever so lightly, like lilies, one atop the other.

“Children! Children, I'm ready.”

“Ready for what, ma? Some more black medicine?”

“Just ready, Jimmie, my boy! Here, Joe; hold my hand. It's like his was, children—big and strong.”

“Aw, ma! Come on! Perk up!”

“I am, Jimmie, my boy.”

“Perk up for sure, I mean. Gee, ain't there enough to perk about? Look at Joe and Ess—enough to give a fellow the Willies, pipin' at each other like sugar'd melt in their mouths!”

“My Jimmie's a great one for teasin' his sister, Joe.”

“And look at me, ma—ain't I going to take my dynamo over to the Institute? And ain't the whole bunch of us right here next to your bed? And just look, ma—look at the two of 'em turning to sugar right this minute from lovin' each other! Ain't it the limit? Look at us, ma—all here and fine as silkworms.”

“Yes, yes, Jimmie; that's why I feel so light. I never felt so light before. It's like it says on the lamp-mat, Jimmie—just like it says. I'm ready for sure, my darlin's.”

“Oh, Gawd, ma—ready for what? Look at us, ma dearie—all three of us standing here—ready for what, dearie?”

“You tell 'em, Joe; you—you're big and strong.”

“I—I don't know, ma. I don't think I—I know for sure, dearie.”

“Ready for what, ma? Tell us, darlin'.”

She turned her face toward them, a smile printed on her lips.

“Just ready, children.”

 
 
 

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