Copyright 1915, 1916
I. Happy Home in Sunrise Alley II. Moccasins and Lady Slippers III. S.O.S. IV. "Bearer of Morning" V. Little Brother VI. The Song of a Bird VII. Peaches' Preference in Blessings VIII. Big Brother IX. James Jr. and Malcolm X. The Wheel of Life XI. The Advent of Nancy and Peter XII. Feminine Reasoning XIII. A Safe Proposition XIV. An Orphans' Home XV. A Particular Nix XVI. The Fingers in the Pie XVII. Initiations in an Ancient and Honourable Brotherhood XVIII. Malcolm and the Hermit Thrush XIX. Establishing Protectorates XX. Mickey's Miracle
Happy Home in Sunrise Alley
"Aw KID, come on! Be square!"
"You look out what you say to me."
"But ain't you going to keep your word?"
"Mickey, do you want your head busted?"
"Naw! But I did your work so you could loaf; now I want the pay you promised me."
"Let's see you get it! Better take it from me, hadn't you?"
"You're twice my size; you know I can't, Jimmy!"
"Then you know it too, don't you?"
"Now look here kid, it's 'cause you're getting so big that folks will be buying quicker of a little fellow like me; so you've laid in the sun all afternoon while I been running my legs about off to sell your papers; and when the last one is gone, I come and pay you what they sold for; now it's up to you to do what you promised."
"Why didn't you keep it when you had it?"
"'Cause that ain't business! I did what I promised fair and square; I was giving you a chance to be square too."
"Oh! Well next time you won't be such a fool!"
Jimmy turned to step from the gutter to the sidewalk. Two things happened to him simultaneously: Mickey became a projectile. He smashed with the force of a wiry fist on the larger boy's head, while above both, an athletic arm gripped him by the collar.
Douglas Bruce was hurrying to see a client before he should leave his office; but in passing a florist's window his eye was attracted by a sight so beautiful he paused an instant, considering. It was spring; the Indians were coming down to Multiopolis to teach people what the wood Gods had put into their hearts about flower magic.
The watcher scarcely had realized the exquisite loveliness of a milk-white birch basket filled with bog moss of silvery green, in which were set maidenhair and three yellow lady slippers, until beside it was placed another woven of osiers blood red, moss carpeted and bearing five pink moccasin flowers, faintly fined with red lavender; between them rosemary and white ladies' tresses. A flush crept over the lean face of the Scotsman. He saw a vision. Over those baskets bent a girl, beautiful as the flowers. Plainly as he visualized the glory of the swamp, Douglas Bruce pictured the woman he loved above the orchids. While he lingered, his heart warmed, glowing, his wonderful spring day made more wonderful by a vision not adequately describable, on his ear fell Mickey's admonition: "Be square!"
He sent one hasty glance toward the gutter. He saw a sullen-faced newsboy of a size that precluded longer success at paper selling, because public sympathy goes to the little fellows. Before him stood one of these same little fellows, lean, tow-haired, and blue-eyed, clean of face, neat in dress; with a peculiar modulation in his voice that caught Douglas squarely in the heart. He turned again to the flowers, but as his eyes revelled in beauty, his ears, despite the shuffle of passing feet, and the clamour of cars, lost not one word of what was passing in the gutter, while with each, slow anger surged higher. Mickey, well aware that his first blow would be all the satisfaction coming to him, put the force of his being into his punch. At the same instant Douglas thrust forth a hand that had pulled for Oxford and was yet in condition.
"Aw, you big stiff!" gasped Jimmy, twisting an astonished neck to see what was happening above and in his rear so surprisingly. Had that little Mickey O'Halloran gone mad to hit him? Mickey standing back, his face upturned, was quite as surprised as Jimmy.
"What did he promise you for selling his papers?" demanded a deep voice.
"Twen—ty-five," answered Mickey, with all the force of inflection in his power. "And if you heard us, Mister, you heard him own up he was owing it."
"I did," answered Douglas Bruce tersely. Then to Jimmy: "Hand him over twenty-five cents."
Jimmy glared upward, but what he saw and the tightening of the hand on his collar were convincing. He drew from his pocket five nickels, dropping them into the outstretched hand of Douglas, who passed them to Mickey, the soiled fingers of whose left hand closed over them, while his right snatched off his cap. Fear was on his face, excitement was in his eyes, triumph was in his voice, while a grin of comradeship curved his lips.
"Many thanks, Boss," he said. "And would you add to them by keeping that strangle hold 'til you give me just two seconds the start of him?" He wheeled, darting through the crowd.
"Mickey!" cried Douglas Bruce. "Mickey, wait!"
But Mickey was half a block away turning into an alley. The man's grip tightened a twist.
"You'll find Mickey's admonition good," he said. "I advise you to take it. 'Be square!' And two things: first, I've got an eye on the Mickeys of this city. If I ever again find you imposing on him or any one else, I'll put you where you can't. Understand? Second, who is he?"
"Mickey!" answered the boy.
"Mickey who?" asked Douglas.
"How'd I know?" queried Jimmy.
"You don't know his name?" pursued Douglas.
"Naw, I don't!" said the boy.
"Where does he live?" continued Douglas.
"I don't know," answered Jimmy.
"If you have a charge to prefer, I'll take that youngster in for you," offered a policeman passing on his beat.
"He was imposing on a smaller newsboy. I made him quit," Douglas explained. "That's all."
"Oh!" said the officer, withdrawing his hand. Away sped Jimmy; with him went all chance of identifying Mickey, but Bruce thought he would watch for him. He was such an attractive little fellow.
Mickey raced through the first alley, down a street, then looked behind. Jimmy was not in sight.
"Got him to dodge now," he muttered. "If he ever gets a grip on me he'll hammer me meller! I'm going to have a bulldog if I half starve to buy it. Maybe the pound would give me one. I'll see to-morrow."
He looked long, then started homeward, which meant to jump on a car and ride for miles, then follow streets and alleys again. Finally he entered a last alley that faced due east. A compass could not have pointed more directly toward the rising sun; while there was at least half an hour each clear morning when rickety stairs, wavering fire-escapes, flapping washes, and unkept children were submerged in golden light. Long ago it had been named. By the time of Mickey's advent Sunrise Alley was as much a part of the map of Multiopolis as Biddle Boulevard, and infinitely more pleasing in name. He began climbing interminable stairs. At the top of the last flight he unlocked his door to enter his happy home; for Mickey had a home, and it was a happy one. No one else lived in it, while all it contained was his.
Mickey knew three things about his father: he had had one, he was not square, and he drank himself to death. He could not remember his father, but he knew many men engaged in the occupation of his passing, so he well understood why his mother never expressed any regrets.
Vivid in his mind was her face, anxious and pale, but twinkling; her body frail and overtaxed, but hitting back at life uncomplainingly. Bad things happened, but she explained how they might have been worse; so fed on this sop, and watching her example, Mickey grew like her. The difficult time was while she sat over a sewing machine to be with him. When he grew stout-legged and self-reliant, he could be sent after the food, to carry the rent, and to sell papers, then she could work by the day, earn more, have better health, while what both brought home paid the rent of the top room back, of as bad a shamble as a self-respecting city would allow; kept them fed satisfyingly if not nourishingly, and allowed them to slip away many a nickel for the rainy day that she always explained would come. And it did.
One morning she could not get up; the following Mickey gave all their savings to a man with a wagon to take her to a nice place to rest. The man was sure about it being a nice place. She had told Mickey so often what to do if this ever happened, that when it did, all that was necessary was to remember what he had been told. After it was over and the nice place had been paid for, with the nickels and the sewing machine, with enough left for the first month's rent, Mickey faced life alone. But he knew exactly what to do, because she had told him. She had even written it down lest he forget. It was so simple that only a boy who did not mind his mother could have failed. The formula worked perfectly.
Morning: Get up early. Wash your face, brush your clothes. Eat what was left from supper for breakfast. Put your bed to air, then go out with your papers. Don't be afraid to offer them, or to do work of any sort you have strength for; but be deathly afraid to beg, to lie, or to steal, while if you starve, freeze, or die, never, never touch any kind of drink.
Any fellow could do that; Mickey told dozens of them so.
He got along so well he could pay the rent each month, dress in whole clothing, have enough to eat, often cooked food on the little gasoline stove, if he were not too tired to cook it, and hide nickels in the old place daily. He had a bed and enough cover; he could get water in the hall at the foot of the flight of stairs leading to his room for his bath, to scrub the floor, and wash the dishes. From two years on, he had helped his mother with every detail of her housekeeping; he knew exactly what must be done.
It was much more dreadful than he thought it would be to come home alone, and eat supper by himself, but if he sold papers until he was almost asleep where he stood, he found he went to sleep as soon as he reached home and had supper. He did not awaken until morning; then he could hurry his work and get ahead of the other boys, and maybe sell to their customers. It might be bad to be alone, but always he could remember her, and make her seem present by doing every day exactly what she told him. Then, after all, being alone was a very wonderful thing compared with having parents who might beat and starve him and take the last penny he earned, not leaving enough to keep him from being hungry half the time.
When Mickey looked at some of the other boys, and heard many of them talk, he almost forgot the hourly hunger for his mother, in thankfulness that he did not have a father and that his mother had been herself. Mickey felt sure that if she had been any one of the mothers of most other boys he knew, he would not have gone home at all. He could endure cold, hunger, and loneliness, but he felt that he had no talent for being robbed, beaten, and starved; while lately he had fully decided upon a dog for company, when he could find the right one.
Mickey unlocked his door, entering for his water bucket. Such was his faith in his environment that he relocked the door while he went to the water tap. Returning to the room he again turned the key, then washed his face and hands. He looked at the slip nailed on the wall where she had put it. He knew every word of it, but always it comforted him to see her familiar writing, to read aloud what to do next as if it were her voice speaking to him. Evening: "Make up your bed." Mickey made his. "Wash any dirty dishes." He had a few so he washed them. "Sweep your floor." He swept. "Always prepare at least one hot thing for supper." He shook the gasoline tank to the little stove. It sounded full enough, so he went to the cupboard his mother had made from a small packing case. There were half a loaf of bread wrapped in its oiled paper, with two bananas discarded by Joe of the fruit stand. He examined his pocket, although he knew perfectly what it contained. Laying back enough to pay for his stock the next day, then counting in his twenty-five cents, he had forty cents left. He put thirty in the rent box, starting out with ten. Five paid for a bottle of milk, three for cheese, two for an egg for breakfast.
Then he went home. At the foot of the fire-escape that he used in preference to the stairs, he met a boy he knew tugging a heavy basket.
"Take an end for a nickel," said the boy.
"Thanks," said Mickey. "It's my time to dine. 'Sides, I been done once to- day."
"If you'll take it, I'll pay first," he offered.
"How far?" questioned Mickey.
"Oh, right over here," said the boy indefinitely.
"Sure!" said Mickey. "Cross my palm with the silver."
The nickel changed hands. Mickey put the cheese and egg in his pocket, the milk in the basket, then started. The place where they delivered the wash made Mickey feel almost prosperous. He picked up his milk bottle and stepped from the door, when a long, low wail that made him shudder, reached his ear.
"What's that?" he asked the woman.
"A stiff was carried past to-day. Mebby they ain't took the kids yet."
Mickey went slowly down the stairs, his face sober. That was what his mother had feared for him. That was why she had trained him to care for himself, to save the pennies, so that when she was taken away, he still would have a home. Sounded like a child! He was halfway up the long flight of stairs before he realized that he was going. He found the door at last, then, stood listening. He heard long-drawn, heart-breaking moaning. Presently he knocked. A child's shriek was the answer. Mickey straightway opened the door. The voice guided him to a heap of misery in a corner.
"What's the matter kid?" inquired Mickey huskily.
The bundle stirred, while a cry issued. He glanced around the room. What he saw reassured him. He laid hold of the tatters, beginning to uncover what was under them. He dropped his hands, stepping back, when a tangled yellow mop and a weazened, bloated girl-child face peered at him, with wildly frightened eyes.
"If you'd put the wind you're wastin' into words, we'd get something done quicker," advised Mickey.
The tiny creature clutched the filthy covers, still staring.
"Did you come to 'get' me?" she quavered.
"No," said Mickey. "I heard you from below so I came to see what hurt you. Ain't you got folks?"
She shook her head: "They took granny in a box and they said they'd come right back and 'get' me. Oh, please, please don't let them!"
"Why they'd be good to you," said Mickey largely. "They'd give you"—he glanced at all the things the room lacked, then enumerated—"a clean bed, lots to eat, a window you could be seeing from, a doll, maybe."
"No! No!" she cried. "Granny always said some day she'd go and leave me; then they'd 'get' me. She's gone! The big man said they'd come right back. Oh don't let them! Oh hide me quick!"
"Well—well—! If you're so afraid, why don't you cut and hide yourself then?" he asked.
"My back's bad. I can't walk," the child answered.
"Oh Lord!" said Mickey. "When did you get hurt?"
"It's always been bad. I ain't ever walked," she said.
"Well!" breathed Mickey, aghast. "And knowing she'd have to leave you some day, your granny went and scared you stiff about the Home folks taking you, when it's the only place for you to be going? Talk about women having the sense to vote!"
"I won't go! I won't! I'll scratch them! I'll bite them!" Then in swift change: "Oh boy, don't. Please, please don't let them 'get' me."
Mickey took both the small bony hands reaching for him. He was so frightened with their hot, tremulous clutch, that he tried to pull away, dragging the tiny figure half to light and bringing from it moans of pain.
"Oh my back! Oh you're hurting me! Oh don't leave me! Oh boy, oh dear boy, please don't leave me!"
When she said "Oh dear boy," Mickey heard the voice of his mother in an hourly phrase. He crept closer, enduring the touch of the grimy claws.
"My name's Mickey," he said. "What's your?"
"Peaches," she answered. "Peaches, when I'm good. Crippled brat, when I'm bad."
"B'lieve if you had your chance you could look the peaches," said Mickey, "but what were you bad for?"
"So's she'd hit me," answered Peaches.
"But if me just pulling a little hurt you so, what happened when she hit you?" asked Mickey.
"Like knives stuck into me," said Peaches.
"Then what did you be bad for?" marvelled Mickey.
"Didn't you ever get so tired of one thing you'd take something that hurt, jus' for a change?"
"My eye!" said Mickey. "I don't know one fellow who'd do that, Peaches."
"Mickey, hide me. Oh hide me! Don't let them 'get' me!" she begged.
"Why kid, you're crazy," said Mickey. "Now lemme tell you. Where they'll take you looks like a nice place. Honest it does. I've seen lots of them. You get a clean soft bed all by yourself, three big hot meals a day, things to read, and to play with. Honest Peaches, you do! I wouldn't tell you if it wasn't so. If I'll stay with you 'til they come, then go with you to the place 'til you see how nice it is, will you be good and go?"
She burrowed in the covers, screeching again.
"You're scared past all reason," said Mickey. "You don't know anything. But maybe the Orphings' Homes ain't so good as they look. If they are, why was mother frightened silly about them getting me? Always she said she just had to live until I got so big they wouldn't 'get' me. And I kept them from getting me by doing what she told me. Wonder if I could keep them from getting you? There's nothing of you. If I could move you there, I bet I could feed you more than your granny did, while I know I could keep you cleaner. You could have my bed, a window to look from, and clean covers." Mickey was thinking aloud. "Having you to come home to would be lots nicer than nothing. You'd beat a dog all hollow, 'cause you can talk. If I could get you there, I believe I could be making it. Yes, I believe I could do a lot better than this, and I believe I'd like you, Peaches, you are such a game little kid."
"She could lift me with one hand," she panted. "Oh Mickey, take me! Hurry!"
"Lemme see if I can manage you," said Mickey. "Have you got to be took any particular way?"
"Mickey, ain't you got folks that beat you?" she asked.
"I ain't got folks now," said Mickey, "and they didn't beat me when I had them. I'm all for myself—and if you say so, I guess from now on, I'm for you. Want to go?"
Her arms wound tightly around his neck. Her hot little face pressed against it.
"Put one arm 'cross my shoulders, an' the other round my legs," she said.
"But I got to go down a lot of stairs; it's miles and miles," said Mickey, "and I ain't got but five cents. I spent it all for grub. Peaches, are you hungry?"
"No!" she said stoutly. "Mickey, hurry!"
"But honest, I can't carry you all that way. I would if I could, Peaches, honest I would."
"Oh Mickey, dear Mickey, hurry!" she begged.
"Get down and cover up 'til I think," he ordered. "Say you look here! If I tackle this job do you want a change bad enough to be mean for me?"
"Just a little bit, maybe," said Peaches.
"But I won't hit you," explained Mickey.
"You can if you want to," she said. "I won't cry. Give me a good crack now, an' see if I do."
"You make me sick at my stummick," said Mickey. "Lord, kid! Snuggle down 'til I see. I'm going to get you there some way."
Mickey went back to the room where he helped deliver the clothes basket. "How much can you earn the rest of the night?" he asked the woman.
"Mebby ten cents," she said.
"Well, if you will loan me that basket and ten cents, and come with me an hour, there's that back and just a dollar in it for you, lady," he offered.
She turned from him with a sneering laugh.
"Honest, lady!" said Mickey. "This is how it is: that crying got me so I went Anthony Comstockin'. There's a kid with a lame back all alone up there, half starved and scared fighting wild. We could put her in that basket, she's just a handful, and take her to a place she wants to go. We could ride most of the way on the cars and then a little walk, and get her to a cleaner, better room, where she'd be taken care of, and in an hour you'd be back with enough nickels in your pocket to make a great, big, round, shining, full-moon cartwheel. Dearest lady, doesn't the prospect please you?"
"It would," she said, "if I had the cartwheel now."
"In which case you wouldn't go," said Mickey. "Dearest lady, it isn't business to pay for undone work."
"And it isn't business to pay your employer's fare to get to your job either," she retorted.
"No, that beats business a mile," said Mickey. "That's an investment. You invest ten cents and an hour's time on a gamble. Now look what you get, lady. A nice restful ride on the cars. Your ten cents back, a whole, big, shining, round, lady-liberty bird, if you trust in God, as the coin says the bird does, and more'n that, dearest lady, you go to bed feeling your pinfeathers sprouting, 'cause you've done a kind deed to a poor crippled orphing."
"If I thought you really had the money—" she said.
"Honest, lady, I got the money," said Mickey, "and 'sides, I got a surprise party for you. When you get back you may go to that room and take every scrap that's in it. Now come on; you're going to be enough of a sporting lady to try a chance like that, ain't you? May be a gold mine up there, for all I know. Put something soft in the bottom of the basket while I fetch the kid."
Mickey ran up the stairs.
"Now Peaches," he said, "I guess I got it fixed. I'm going to carry you down; a nice lady is going to put you in a big basket, then we'll take you to the cars and so get you to my house; but you got to promise, 'cross your heart, you won't squeal, nor say a word, 'cause the police will 'get' you sure, if you do. They'll think the woman is your ma, so it will be all right. See?"
Peaches nodded. Mickey wrapped her in the remnants of a blanket, carried her downstairs and laid her in the basket. By turning on her side and drawing up her feet, she had more room than she needed.
"They won't let us on the cars," said the woman.
"Dearest lady, wait and see," said Mickey. "Now Peaches, shut your eyes, also your mouth. Don't you take a chance at saying a word. If they won't stand the basket, we'll carry you, but it would hurt you less, while it would come in handy when we run out of cars. You needn't take coin only for going, dearest lady; you'll be silver plated coming back."
"You little fool," said the woman, but she stooped to her end of the basket.
"Ready, Peaches," said Mickey, "and if it hurts, 'member it will soon be over, and you'll be where nobody will ever hurt you again."
"Hurry!" begged the child.
Down the long stairs they went and to the car line. Crowded car after car whirled past; finally one came not so full, it stopped to let off passengers. Mickey was at the conductor's elbow.
"Please mister, a lame kid," he pleaded. "We want to move her. Please, please help us on."
"Can't!" said the conductor. "Take a taxi."
"Broke my limousine," said Mickey. "Aw come on mister; ain't you got kids of your own?"
"Get out of the way!" shouted the conductor.
"Hang on de back wid the basket," cried the woman.
With Peaches laid over her shoulder, she swung to the platform, and found a seat, while Mickey grabbed the basket and ran to the back screaming after her: "I got my fare; only pay for yourself." Mickey told the conductor to tell the lady where to leave the car. When she stepped down he was ready with the basket. Peaches, panting and in cold perspiration with pain, was laid in it.
"Lovely part of the village, ain't it, lady?" said Mickey. "See the castles of the millyingaires piercing the sky; see their automobiles at the curb; see the lovely ladies and gents promenading the streets enjoying the spring?"
Every minute Mickey talked to keep the woman from noticing how far she was going; but soon she growled: "How many miles furder is it?"
"Just around a corner, up an alley, and down a side street a step. Nothing at all! Nice promenade for a spry, lovely young lady like you. Evening walk, smell spring in the air. 'Most there now, Peaches."
"Where are ye takin' this kid? How'll I ever get back to the car line?" asked the woman.
Mickey ignored the first question. "Why, I'll be eschorting you of course, dearest lady," he said.
At the point of rebellion, Mickey spoke. "Now set the basket down right here," he ordered. "I'll be back in no time with the lady-bird."
He returned in a few minutes. Into her outstretched palm he counted twenty-two nickels, picked the child from the basket, darted around a corner calling, "Back in a minute," and was gone.
"Now Peaches, we got some steps to climb," he said. "Grip my neck tight and stand just a little more."
"I ain't hurt!" she asserted. "I like seein' things. I never saw so much before. I ain't hurt—much!"
"Your face, your breathing, and the sweating on your lips, is a little disproving," said Mickey, "but I'll have to take your word for it, 'cause I can't help it; but it'll soon be over so you may rest."
Mickey climbed a flight, then sat down until he could manage another. The last flight he rested three times. One reason he laid Peaches on the floor was because he couldn't reach the bed. After a second's pause he made a light, and opened the milk bottle.
"Connect with that," he said. "I got to take the lady back to the cars."
"Oh!" cried the connected child. "Oh Mickey, how good!"
"Go slow!" said Mickey. "You better save half to have with some bread for your supper. Now I got to leave you a little bit, but you needn't be afraid, 'cause I'll lock you in. Nobody will 'get' you here."
"Now for the cars," said Mickey to his helper.
"What did them folks say?" she asked.
"Tickled all over," answered Mickey promptly.
"That bundle of dirty rags!" she scoffed.
"They are going to throw away the rags and wash her," said Mickey. "She's getting her supper now."
"Sounds like lying," said the woman, "but mebby it ain't. Save me, I can't see why anybody would want a kid at any time, let alone a reekin' bunch of skin and crooked bones."
"You've known folks to want a dog, ain't you?" said Mickey. "Sure something that can think and talk back must be a lot more amusing. I see the parks are full of the rich folks dolling up the dogs, feeding them candy and sending them out for an airing in their automobiles; so it's up to the poor people to look after the homeless children, isn't it?"
"Do you know the folks that took her?"
"Sure I do!" said Mickey.
"Do you live close?" she persisted.
"Yes! I'm much obliged for your help, dearest lady. When you get home, go up to the last attic back, and if there is anything there you want, help yourself. Peaches don't need it now, while there's no one else. Thank you, and good-bye. Don't fly before your wings grow, 'cause I know you'll feel like trying to-night."
Mickey hurried back to his room. The milk bottle lay on the floor, the child asleep beside it. The boy gazed at her. There were strange and peculiar stirrings in his lonely little heart. She was so grimy he scarcely could tell what she looked like, but the grip of her tiny hot hands was on him. Presently he laughed.
"Well fellers! Look what I've annexed! And I was hunting a dog! Well, she's lots better. She won't eat much more, she can talk, and she'll be something alive waiting when I come home. Gee, I'm glad I found her."
Mickey set the washtub on the floor near the sleeping child, and filling the dishpan with water, put it over the gasoline burner. Then he produced soap, a towel, and comb. He looked at the child again, and going to the box that contained his mother's clothing he hunted out a nightdress. Then he sat down to wait for the water to heat. The door slammed when he went after a bucket of cold water, and awakened the girl. She looked at him, then at his preparations.
"I ain't going to be washed," she said. "It'll hurt me. Put me on the bed."
"Put you on my bed, dirty like you are?" cried Mickey. "I guess not! You are going to be a soaped lady. If it hurts, you can be consoling yourself thinking it will be the last time, 'cause after this you'll be washed every day so you won't need skinning alive but once."
"I won't! I won't!" she cried.
"Now looky here!" said Mickey. "I'm the boss of this place. If I say wash, it's wash! See! I ain't going to have a dirty girl with mats in her hair living with me. You begged me and begged me to bring you, now you'll be cleaned up or you'll go back. Which is it, back or soap?"
The child stared at him, then around the room.
"Soap," she conceded.
"That's a lady," said Mickey. "Course it's soap! All clean and sweet smelling like a flower. See my mammy's nice white nightie for you? How bad is your back, Peaches? Can you sit up?"
"A little while," she answered. "My legs won't go."
"Never you mind," said Mickey. "I'll work hard and get a doctor, so some day they will."
"They won't ever," insisted Peaches. "Granny carried me to the big doctors once, an' my backbone is weak, an' I won't ever walk, they all said so."
"Poot! Doctors don't know everything," scorned Mickey. "That was long ago, maybe. By the time I can earn enough to get you a dress and shoes, a doctor will come along who's found out how to make backs over. There's one that put different legs on a dog. I read about it in the papers I sold. We'll save our money and get him to put another back on you. Just a bully back."
"Oh Mickey, will you?" she cried.
"Sure!" said Mickey. "Now you sit up and I'll wash you like Mammy always did me."
Peaches obeyed. Mickey soaped a cloth, knelt beside her; then he paused. "Say Peaches, when was your hair combed last?"
"I don't know, Mickey," she answered.
"There's more dirt in it than there is on your face."
"If you got shears, just cut it off," she suggested.
"Sure!" said Mickey.
He produced shears and lifting string after string cut all of them the same distance from her head.
"Girls' shouldn't be short, like boys'," he explained. "Now hang your head over the edge of the tub and shut your eyes so I can wash it," he ordered.
Mickey soaped and scoured until the last tangle was gone, then rinsed and partly dried the hair, which felt soft and fine to his fingers.
"B'lieve it's going to curl," he said.
"Always did," she answered.
Mickey emptied and rinsed the tub at the drain, then started again on her face and ears, which he washed thoroughly. He pinned a sheet around her neck, then she divested herself of the rags. Mickey lifted her into the tub, draped the sheet over the edge, poured in the water, and handed her the soap.
"Now you scour, while I get supper," he said.
Peaches did her best. Mickey locked her in and went after more milk. He wanted to add several extras, but remembering the awful hole the dollar had made in his finances, he said grimly: "No-sir-ee! With a family to keep, and likely to need a doctor at any time and a Carrel back to buy, there's no frills for Mickey. Seeing what she ain't had, she ought to be thankful for just milk."
So he went back, lifted Peaches from the tub and laid her on the floor, where he dried her with the sheet. Then he put the nightdress over her head, she slipped her arms in the sleeves, and he stretched her on his bed. She was so lost in the garment he tied a string under her arms to hold it, and cut off the sleeves at her elbows. The pieces he saved for washcloths. Mickey spread his sheet over her, rolled the bed before the window where she could have air, see sky and housetops, then brought her supper. It was a cup of milk with half the bread broken in, and a banana. Peaches was too tired to eat, so she drank the milk while Mickey finished the remainder. Then he threw her rags from the window, and spread his winter covers on the floor for his bed. Soon both of them were asleep.
Moccasins and Lady Slippers
"No messenger boy for those," said Douglas Bruce as he handed the florist the price set on the lady slippers. "Leave them where people may enjoy them until I call."
As he turned, another man was inquiring about the orchids; he too preferred the slippers; but when he was told they were taken, he had wanted the moccasins all the time, anyway. The basket was far more attractive. He refused delivery, returning to his waiting car smiling over the flowers. He also saw a vision of the woman into whose sated life he hoped to bring a breath of change with the wonderful gift. He saw the basket in her hands, and thrilled in anticipation of the favours her warmed heart might prompt her to bestow upon him.
In the mists of early morning the pink orchids surrounded by rosemary and ladies' tresses had glowed and gleamed from the top of a silvery moss mound four feet deep, under a big tamarack in a swamp, through the bog of which the squaw plunged to her knees at each step to uproot them. In the evening glow of electricity, snapped from their stems, the beautiful basket untouched, the moccasins lay on the breast of a woman of fashion, while with every second of contact with the warmth of her body, they drooped lower, until clasped in the arms of her lover, they were quite crushed, then flung from an automobile to be ground to pulp by passing wheels.
The slippers had a happier fate. Douglas Bruce carried them reverently. He was sure he knew the swamp in which they grew. As he went his way, he held the basket, velvet-white, in strong hands, swaying his body with the motion of the car lest one leaf be damaged. When he entered the hall, down the stairs came Leslie Winton.
"Why Douglas, I wasn't expecting you," she said.
Douglas Bruce held up the basket.
"Joy!" she cried. "Oh joy unspeakable! Who has been to the tamarack swamp?"
"A squaw was leaving Lowry's as he put these in his window," answered Douglas.
"Bring them," she said.
He followed to a wide side veranda, set the basket on a table in a cool spot, then drew a chair near it. Leslie Winton seated herself, leaning on the table to study the orchids. Unconsciously she made the picture Douglas had seen. She reached up slim fingers in delicate touchings here and there of moss, corolla and slipper.
"Never in all my days—" she said. "Never in all my days—I shall keep the basket always, and the slippers as long as I possibly can. See this one! It isn't fully open. I should have them for a week at least. Please hand me a glass of water."
Douglas started to say that ice water would be too cold, but with the wisdom of a wise man waited; and as always, was joyed by the waiting. For the girl took the glass and cupping her hands around it sat talking to the flowers, and to him, as she warmed the water with heat from her body. Douglas was so delighted with the unforeseen second that had given him first chance at the orchids, and so this unexpected call, that he did not mind the attention she gave the flowers. He had reasons for not being extravagant; but seldom had a like sum brought such returns. He began drawing interest as he watched Leslie. Never had her form seemed so perfect, her dress so becoming and simple. How could other women make a vulgar display in the same pattern that clothed her modestly? How wonderful were the soft coils of her hair, the tints paling and flushing on her cheeks, her shining eyes! Why could not all women use her low, even, perfectly accented speech and deliberate self-control?
He was in daily intercourse with her father, a high official of the city, a man of education, social position, and wealth. Mr. Winton had reared his only child according to his ideas; but Douglas, knowing these things, believed in blood also. As Leslie turned and warmed the water, watching her, the thought was strong in his mind: what a woman her mother must have been! Each day he was with Leslie, he saw her do things that no amount of culture could instil. Instinct and tact are inborn; careful rearing may produce a good imitation, they are genuine only with blood. Leslie had always filled his ideal of a true woman. To ignore him for his gift would have piqued many a man; Douglas Bruce was pleased.
"You wonders!" she said softly. "Oh you wonders! When the mists lifted in the marshes this morning, and the first ray of gold touched you to equal goldness, you didn't know you were coming to me. I almost wish I could put you back. Just now you should be in such cool mistiness, while you should be hearing a hermit thrush sing vespers, a cedar bird call, and a whip- poor-will cry. But I'm glad I have you! Oh I'm so glad you came to me! I never materialized a whole swamp with such vividness as only this little part of it brings. Douglas, when you caught the first glimpse of these, how far into the swamp did you see past them?"
"To the heart—of the swamp—and of my heart."
"I can see it as perfectly as I ever did," she said. "But I eliminate the squaw; possibly because I didn't see her. And however exquisite the basket is, she broke the law when she peeled a birch tree. I'll wager she brought this to Lowry, carefully covered. And I'm not sure but there should have been a law she broke when she uprooted these orchids. Much as I love them, I doubt if I can keep them alive, and bring them to bloom next season. I'll try, but I don't possess flower magic in the highest degree."
She turned the glass, touching it with questioning palm. Was it near the warmth of bog water? After all, was bog water warm? Next time she was in a swamp she would plunge her hand deeply in the mosses to feel the exact temperature to which those roots had been accustomed. Then she spoke again.
"Yes, I eliminate the squaw," she said. "These golden slippers are the swamp to me, but I see you kneeling to lift them. I am so glad I'm the woman they made you see."
Douglas sat forward and opened his lips. Was not this the auspicious moment?
"Did the squaw bring more?" she questioned.
"Yes," he answered. "Pink moccasins in a basket of red osiers, with the same moss, rosemary and white tresses. Would you rather those?"
She set down the glass, drawing the basket toward her with both hands. As she parted the mosses to drop in the water she slowly shook her head.
"One must have seen them to understand what that would be like," she said. "I know it was beautiful, but I'm sure I should have selected the gold had I been there. Oh I wonder if the woman who has the moccasins will give them a drink to-night! And will she try to preserve their roots?"
"She will not!" said Douglas emphatically.
"How can you possibly know?" queried the girl.
"I saw the man who ordered them," laughed Douglas.
"Oh!" cried Leslie, comprehendingly.
"I'd stake all I'm worth the moccasins are drooping against a lavender dress; the roots are in the garbage can, while the cook or maid has the basket," he said.
"Douglas, how can you!" exclaimed Leslie.
"I couldn't! Positively couldn't! Mine are here!"
The slow colour crept into her cheek. "I'll make those roots bloom next spring; you shall see them in perfection," she promised.
"That would be wonderful!" he exclaimed warmly.
"Tell me, were there yet others?" she asked hastily.
"Only these," he said. "But there was something else. I came near losing them. While I debated, or rather while I possessed these, and worshipped the others, there was a gutter row that almost made me lose yours."
"In the gutter again?" she laughed.
"Once again," he admitted. "Such a little chap, with an appealing voice, while his inflection was the smallest part of what he was saying. 'Aw kid, come on. Be square!' Oh Leslie!"
"Why Douglas!" the girl cried. "Tell me!"
"Of all the wooden-head slowness!" he exclaimed. "I've let him slip again!"
"Let who 'slip again?'" questioned Leslie. "My little brother!" answered he.
"Oh Douglas! You didn't really?" she protested.
"Yes I did," he said. "I heard a little lad saying the things that are in the blood and bone of the men money can't buy and corruption can't break. I heard him plead like a lawyer and argue his case straight. I lent a hand when his eloquence failed, got him his deserts, then let him go! I did have an impulse to keep him. I did call after him. But he disappeared."
"Douglas, we can find him!" she comforted.
"I haven't found either of the others I realized I'd have been interested in, after I let them slip," he answered, "while this boy was both of them rolled into one, and ten more like them."
"Oh Douglas! I'm so sorry! But maybe some other man has already found him," said Leslie.
"No. You can always pick the brothered boys," said Douglas. "The first thing that happens to them is a clean-up and better clothing; then an air of possessed importance. No man has attached this one."
"Douglas, describe him," she commanded. "I'll watch for him. How did he look? What was the trouble?"
"One at a time," cautioned the man. "He was a little chap, a white, clean, threadbare little chap, with such a big voice, so wonderfully intoned, and such a bigger principle, for which he was fighting. One of these overgrown newsboys the public won't stand for unless he is in the way when they are making a car, had hired him to sell his papers while he loafed. Mickey——"
"'Mickey?'" repeated Leslie questioningly.
"The big fellow called him 'Mickey'; no doubt a mother who adored him named him Michael, and thought him 'like unto God' when she did it. The big fellow had loafed all afternoon. When Mickey came back and turned over the money, and waited to be paid off, his employer laughed at the boy for not keeping it when he had it. Mickey begged him 'to be square' and told him that 'was not business'—'not business,' mind you, but the big fellow jeered at him and was starting away. Mickey and I reached him at the same time; so I got in the gutter again. I don't see how I can be so slow! I don't see how I did it!"
"I don't either," she said, with a twinkle that might have referred to the first of the two exclamations. "It must be your Scotch habit of going slowly and surely. But cheer up! We'll find him. I'll help you."
"Have you reflected on the fact that this city covers many square miles, of which a fourth is outskirts, while from them three thousand newsboys gathered at the last Salvation Army banquet for them?"
"That's where we can find him!" she cried. "Thanksgiving, or Christmas! Of course we'll see him then."
"Mickey didn't have a Salvation Army face," he said. "I am sure he is a free lance, and a rare one; besides, this is May. I want my little brother to go on my vacation with me. I want him now."
"Would it help any if I'd be a sister to you?"
"Not a bit," said Douglas. "I don't in the very least wish to consider you in the light of a sister; you have another place in my heart, very different, yet all your own; but I do wish to make of Mickey the little brother I never have had. Minturn was telling me what a rejuvenation he's getting from the boy he picked up. Already he has him in his office, and is planning school and partnership with a man he can train as he chooses."
"But Minturn has sons of his own!" protested Leslie.
"Oh no! Not in the least!" exclaimed Douglas. "Minturn has sons of his wife's. She persistently upsets and frustrates Minturn's every idea for them, while he is helpless. You will remember she has millions; he has what he earns. He can't separate his boys, splendid physical little chaps, from their mother's money and influence, and educate them to be a help to him. They are to be made into men of wealth and leisure. Minturn will evolve his little brother into a man of brains and efficiency."
"But Minturn is a power!" cried the girl.
"Not financially," explained Douglas. "Nothing but money counts with his wife. In telling me of this boy, Minturn confessed that he was forced, forced mind you, to see his sons ruined, while he is building a street gamin as he would them, if permitted."
"How sad, Douglas!" cried Leslie. "Your voice is bitter. Can't he do something?"
"Not a blooming thing!" answered Douglas. "She has the money. She is their mother. Her character is unimpeachable. If Minturn went to extremes, the law would give them to her; she would turn them over to ignorant servants who would corrupt them, and be well paid for doing it. Why Minturn told me—but I can't repeat that. Anyway, he made me eager to try my ideas on a lad who would be company for me, when I can't be here and don't wish to be with other men."
"Are you still going to those Brotherhood meetings?"
"I am. And I always shall be. Nothing in life gives me such big returns for the time invested. There is a world of talk breaking loose about the present 'unrest' among women; I happen to know that the 'unrest' is as deep with men. For each woman I personally know, bitten by 'unrest,' I know two men in the same condition. As long as men and women are forced to combine, to uphold society, it is my idea that it would be a good thing if there were to be a Sisterhood organized; then the two societies frankly brought together and allowed to clear up the differences between them."
"But why not?" asked the girl eagerly.
"Because we are pursuing false ideals, we have a wrong conception of what is worth while in life," answered the Scotsman. "Because the sexes except in rare, very rare, instances, do not understand each other, and every day are drifting farther apart, while most of the married folk I know are farthest apart of all. Leslie, what is it in marriage that constrains people? We can talk, argue and agree or disagree on anything, why can't the Minturns?"
"From what you say, it would seem to me it's her idea of what is worth while in life," said Leslie.
"Exactly!" cried Douglas. "But he can sway men! He can do powerful work. He could induce her to marry him. Why can't he control his own blood?"
"If she should lose her money and become dependent upon him for support, he could!" said Leslie.
"He should do it anyway," insisted Douglas.
"Do you think you could?" she queried.
"I never thought myself in his place," said Douglas, "but I believe I will, and if I see glimmerings, I'll suggest them to him."
"Good boy!" said the girl lightly. And then she added: "Do you mind if I think myself in her place and see if I can suggest a possible point at which she could be reached? I know her. I shouldn't consider her happy. At least not with what I call joy."
"What do you call joy?" asked Douglas.
"Being satisfied with your environment."
Douglas glanced at her, then at her surroundings, and looking into her eyes laughed quizzically.
"But if it were different, I am perfectly confident that I should work out joy from life," insisted Leslie. "It owes me joy! I'll have it, if I fight for it!"
"Leslie! Leslie! Be careful! You are challenging Providence. Stronger men than I have wrought chaos for their children," said a warning voice, as her father came behind her chair.
"Chaos or no, still I'd put up my fight for joy, Daddy," laughed the girl. "Only see, Preciousest!"
"One minute!" said her father, shaking hands with Douglas. "Now what is it, Leslie? Oh, I do see!"
"Take my chair and make friends," said the girl.
Mr. Winton seated himself, then began examining and turning the basket. "Indians?" he queried.
"Yes," said Douglas. "A particularly greasy squaw. I wish I might truthfully report an artist's Indian of the Minnehaha type, but alack, it was the same one I've seen ever since I've been in the city, and that you've seen for years before my arrival."
Mr. Winton still turned the basket.
"I've bought their stuff for years, because neither Leslie nor her mother ever would tolerate fat carnations and overgrown roses so long as I could find a scrap of arbutus, a violet or a wake-robin from the woods. We've often motored up and penetrated the swamp I fancy these came from, for some distance, but later in the season; it's so very boggy now. Aren't these rather wonderful?" He turned to his daughter.
"Perfectly, Daddy," she said. "Perfectly!"
"But I don't mean for the Creator," explained Mr. Winton. "I am accustomed to His miracles. Every day I see a number of them. I mean for the squaw."
"I'd have to know the squaw and understand her viewpoint," said Leslie.
"She had it in her tightly clenched fist," laughed Douglas. "One, I'm sure; anyway, not over two."
"That hasn't a thing to do with the art with which she made the basket and filled it with just three perfect plants," said Leslie.
"You think there is real art in her anatomy?" queried Mr. Winton.
"Bear witness, O you treasures of gold!" cried Leslie, waving toward the basket.
"There was another," explained Douglas as he again described the osier basket.
Mr. Winton nodded. He looked at his daughter.
"I like to think, young woman, that you were born with and I have cultivated what might be called artistic taste in you," he said. "Granted the freedom of the tamarack swamp, could you have done better?"
"Not so well, Daddy! Not nearly so well. I never could have defaced what you can see was a noble big tree by cutting that piece of bark, while I might have worshipped until dragged away, but so far as art and I are concerned, the slippers would still be under their tamarack."
"You are begging the question, Leslie," laughed her father. "I was not discussing the preservation of the wild, I was inquiring into the state of your artistic ability. If you had no hesitation about taking the flowers, could you have gone to that swamp, collected the material and fashioned and filled a more beautiful basket that this?"
"How can I tell, Daddy?" asked the girl. "There's only one way to learn. I'll forget my scruples, you get me a pair of rubber boots, then we'll drive to the tamarack swamp and experiment."
"We'll do it!" cried Mr. Winton. "The very first half day I can spare, we'll do it. And you Douglas, you will want to come with us, of course."
"Why, 'of course,'" laughed Leslie.
"Because he started the expedition with his golden slippers. When it come to putting my girl, and incidentally my whole family, in competition with an Indian squaw on a question of art, naturally, her father and one of her best friends would want to be present."
"But maybe 'Minnie' went alone, and what chance would her work have with you two for judges?" asked Leslie.
"We needn't be the judges," said Douglas Bruce quietly.
"We can put this basket in the basement in a cool, damp place, where it will keep perfectly for a week. When you make your basket we can find the squaw and bring her down with us. Lowry could display the results side by side. He could call up whomever you consider the most artistic man and woman in the city and get their decision. You'd be willing to abide by that, wouldn't you?"
"Surely, but it wouldn't be fair to the squaw," explained Leslie. "I'd have had the benefit of her art to begin on."
"It would," said Mr. Winton. "Does not every artist living, painter, sculptor, writer, what you will, have the benefit of all art that has gone before?"
"You agree?" Leslie turned to Douglas.
"Your father's argument is a truism."
"But I will know that I am on trial. She didn't. Is it fair to her?" persisted Leslie.
"For begging the question, commend me to a woman," said Mr. Winton. "The point we began at, was not what you could do in a contest with her. She went to the swamp and brought from it some flower baskets. It is perfectly fair to her to suppose that they are her best art. Now what we are proposing to test is whether the finest product of our civilization, as embodied in you, can go to the same swamp, and from the same location surpass her work. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly clear, Daddy, and it would be fair," conceded Leslie. "But it is an offence punishable with a heavy fine to peel a birch tree; while I wouldn't do it, if it were not."
"Got her to respect the law anyway," said Mr. Winton to Douglas. "The proposition, Leslie, was not that you do the same thing, but that from the same source you outdo her. You needn't use birch bark if it involves your law-abiding soul."
"Then it's all settled. You must hurry and take me before the lovely plants have flowered," said Leslie.
"I'll go day after to-morrow," promised Mr. Winton.
"In order to make our plan work, it is necessary that I keep these orchids until that time," said Leslie.
"You have a better chance than the lady who drew the osier basket has of keeping hers," said Mr. Winton. "If I remember I have seen the slippers in common earth quite a distance from the lake, while the moccasins demand bog moss, water and swamp mists and dampness."
"I have seen slippers in the woods myself," said Leslie. "I think the conservatory will do, so they shall go there right now. I have to be fair to 'Minnie.'"
"Let me carry them for you," offered Douglas, arising.
"'Scuse us. Back in a second, Daddy," said Leslie. "I am interested, excited and eager to make the test, yet in a sense I do not like it."
"But why?" asked Douglas.
"Can't you see?" countered Leslie.
"No," said Douglas.
"It's shifting my sense of possession," explained the girl. "The slippers are no longer my beautiful gift from you. They are perishable things that belong to an Indian squaw. In justice to her, I have to keep them in perfect condition so that my work may not surpass hers with the unspeakable art of flower freshness; while instead of thinking them the loveliest thing in the world, I will now lie awake half the night, no doubt, studying what I can possibly find that is more beautiful."
Douglas Bruce opened his slow lips, taking a step in her direction.
"Dinner is served," announced her father. He looked inquiringly toward his daughter. She turned to Douglas.
"Unless you have a previous engagement, you will dine with us, won't you?" she asked.
"I should be delighted," he said heartily.
When the meal was over and they had returned to the veranda, Leslie listened quietly while the men talked, most of the time, but when she did speak, what she said proved that she always had listened to and taken part in the discussions of men, until she understood and could speak of business or politics intelligently.
"Have you ever considered an official position, Douglas?" inquired Mr. Winton. "I have an office within my gift, or so nearly so that I can control it, and it seems to me that you would be a good man. Surely we could work together in harmony."
"It never has appealed to me that I wanted work of that nature," answered Douglas. "It's unusually kind of you to think of me, and make the offer, but I am satisfied with what I am doing, while there is a steady increase in my business that gives me confidence."
"What's your objection to office?" asked Mr. Winton.
"That it takes your time from your work," answered Douglas. "That it changes the nature of your work. That if you let the leaders of a party secure you a nomination, and the party elect you, you are bound to their principles, at least there is a tacit understanding that you are, and if you should happen to be afflicted with principles of your own, then you have got to sacrifice them."
"'Afflict' is a good word in this instance," said Mr. Winton. "It is painful to a man of experience to see you young fellows of such great promise come up and 'kick' yourself half to death 'against the pricks' of established business, parties, and customs, but half of you do it. In the end all of you come limping in, poor, disheartened, defeated, and then swing to the other extreme, by being so willing for a change you'll take almost anything, and so the dirty jobs naturally fall to you."
"I grant much of that," Douglas said, in his deliberate way, "but happily I have sufficient annual income from my father's estate to enable me to live until I become acquainted in a strange city, and have time to establish the kind of business I should care to handle. I am thinking of practising corporation law; I specialized in that, so I may have the pleasure before so very long of going after some of the men who do what you so aptly term the 'dirty' jobs."
"A repetition of the customary chorus," said Mr. Winton, "differing only in that it is a little more emphatic than usual. I predict that you will become an office-holder, having party affiliations, inside ten years."
"Possibly," said Douglas. "But I'll promise you this: it will be a new office no man ever before has held, in the gift of a party not now in existence."
"Oh you dreamers!" cried Mr. Winton. "What a wonderful thing it is to be young and setting out to reform the world, especially on a permanent income. That's where you surpass most reformers."
"But I said nothing about reform," corrected Douglas. "I said I was thinking of corporation law."
"I'm accustomed to it; while you wouldn't scare Leslie if you said 'reform,'" remarked Mr. Winton. "She's a reformer herself, you know."
"But only sweat-shops, child labour, civic improvement, preservation of the wild, and things like that!" cried Leslie so quickly and eagerly, that both men laughed.
"God be praised!" exclaimed her father.
"God be fervently praised!" echoed her lover.
Before she retired Leslie visited the slippers.
"I'd like to know," she said softly, as she touched a bronze striped calyx, "I'd like to know how I am to penetrate your location, and find and fashion anything to outdo you and the squaw, you wood creatures you!" Then she bent above the flowers and whispered: "Tuck this in the toe of your slipper! Three times to-night it was in his eyes, and on his tongue, but his slowness let the moment pass. I can 'bide a wee' for my Scotsman, I can bide forever, if I must; for it's he only, and no other."
The moccasins soon had been ground to pulp and carried away on a non-skid tire while at three o'clock in the morning a cross, dishevelled society woman, in passing from her dressing room to her bed, stumbled over the osier basket, kicking it from her way.
Mickey, his responsibility weighing upon him, slept lightly and awakened early, his first thought of Peaches. He slipped into his clothing and advancing peered at her through the grayness. His heart beat wildly.
"Aw you poor kid! You poor little kid!" he whispered to himself as he had fallen into the habit of doing for company. "The scaring, the jolting, the scouring, and everything were too much for you. You've gone sure! You're just like them at the morgue. Aw Peaches! I didn't mean to hurt you, Peaches! I was trying to be good to you. Honest I was, Peaches! Aw——!"
As his fright increased Mickey raised his voice until his last wail reached the consciousness of the sleeping child. She stirred slightly, her head moving on the pillow. Mickey almost fell, so great was his relief. He stepped closer, gazing in awe. The sheared hair had dried in the night, tumbling into a hundred golden ringlets. The tiny clean face was white, so white that the blue of the closed eyes showed darkly through the lids, the blue veins streaked the temples and the little claws lying relaxed on the sheet. Mickey slowly broke up inside. A big, hard lump grew in his throat. He shut his lips tight and bored the tears from his eyes with his wiry fists. He began to mutter his thoughts to regain self-control.
"Gee kid, but you had me scared to the limit!" he said. "I thought you were gone, sure. Honest I did! Ain't I glad though! But you're the whitest thing! You're like——I'll tell you what you're like. You're like the lily flowers in the store windows at Easter. You're white like them, and your hair is the little bit of gold decorating them. If I'd known it was like that I wouldn't a-cut it if I'd spent a month untangling it. Honest I wouldn't, kid! I'm awful sorry! Gee, but it would a-been pretty spread over mother's pillow."
Mickey gazed, worshipped and rejoiced as he bent lower from time to time to watch the fluttering breath.
"You're so clean now you just smell good; but I got to go easy. The dirt covered you so I didn't see how sick you were. You'll go out like a candle, that's what you'll do. I mustn't let even the wind blow cold on you. I couldn't stand it if I was to hurt you. I'd just go and lay down before the cars or jump down an elevator hole. Gee, I'm glad I found you! I wouldn't trade you for the smartest dog that's being rode around in the parks. Nor for the parks! Nor the trees! Nor the birds! Nor the buildings! Nor the swimming places! Nor the automobiles! Nor nothing! Not nothing you could mention at all! Not eating! Nor seeing! Nor having! Not no single thing—nothing at all—Lily!
"Lily!" he repeated. "Little snow white lily! Peaches is a good name for you if you're referring to sweetness, but it doesn't fit for colour. Least I never saw none white. Lily fits you better. If you'd been a dog, I was going to name you Partner. But you're mine just as much as if you was a dog, so I'll name you if I want to. Lily! That's what God made you; that's what I'm going to call you."
The God thought, evoked by creation, remained in Mickey's heart. He glanced at the sky clearing from the graying mists of morning, while the rumble of the streets came up to him in a dull roar.
"O God, I guess I been forgetting my praying some, since mother went. I'd nothing but myself and I ain't worth bothering You about. But O God, if You are going to do any big things to-day, why not do some for Lily? Can't be many that needs it more. If You saw her yesterday, You must see if You'll look down now, that she's better off, she's worlds better off. Wonder if You sent me to get her, so she would be better off. Gee, why didn't You send one of them millyingaires who could a-dressed her up, fed her and took her to the country where the sun would shine on her. Ain't never touched her, I bet a liberty-bird. But if You did the sending, You sent just me, so she's my job, an' I'll do her! But I wish You'd help me, or send me help, O God. It's an awful job to tackle all alone, for I'm going to be scared stiff if she gets sick. I can tell by how I felt when I thought she was gone. So if You sent me God, it's up to You to help me. Come on now! If You see the sparrows when they fall, You jest good naturedly ought to see Lily Peaches, 'cause she's always been down, and she can't ever get up, unless we can help her. Help me all You can O God, and send me help to help her all I can, 'cause she can use all the help she can get, and then some! Amen!"
Mickey took one of Peaches' hands in his.
"I ain't the time now, but to-night I got to cut your nails and clean them, then I guess you'll do to start on," he said as he squeezed the hand. "Lily! Lily Peaches, wake up! It's morning now. I got to go out with the papers to earn supper to-night. Wake up! I must wash you and feed you 'fore I go."
Peaches opened her eyes, drawing back startled.
"Easy now!" cautioned Mickey. "Easy now! Don't be scared. Nobody can 'get' you here! What you want for breakfast, Flowersy-girl? Little Lily white."
An adorable smile illumined the tiny face at the first kindly awakening it ever had known.
"You won't let them 'get' me, will you?" she triumphed.
"You know it!" he answered conclusively. "Now I'll wash your face, cook your breakfast, and fix you at the window where maybe you can see birds going across. Think of that, Lily! Birds!"
"My name's Peaches!" said the child.
"So 'tis!" said Mickey. "But since you arrived to such bettered conditions, you got to be a lady of fashion. Now Peaches, every single kid in the Park is named two names, these days. Fellow can't have a foot race for falling over Mary Elizabeths, and Louisa Ellens. I can't do so much just to start on, 'cause I can't earn the boodle; fast as I get it, you're going to line up; but nachally, just at starting you must begin on the things that are not expensive. Now names don't cost anything, so I can be giving you six if I like, and you are a lily, so right now I'm naming you Lily, but two's the style; keep your Peaches, if it suits you. Lily just flies out of my mouth when I look at you."
This was wonderful. No cursing! No beating! No wailing over a lame-back brat to feed. Mickey liked to give her breakfast! Mickey named her for the wonderful flower like granny had picked up before a church one day, a few weeks ago and in a rare sober moment had carried to her. Mickey had made her feel clean, so rested, and so fresh she wanted to roll over the bed. With child impulse she put up her arms. Mickey stooped to them.
"You goin' to have two names too," she said. "You gotter be fash'nable. I ist love you for everythin', washin', an' breakfast, an' the bed, an' winder, an' off the floor; oh I just love you sick for the winder, an' off the floor. You going to be"—she paused in a deep study to think of a word anywhere nearly adequate, then ended in a burst that was her best emanation—"lovest! Mickey-lovest!"
She hugged him closely, then lifted her chin and pursed her lips. Mickey pulled back, a dull colour in his face.
"Now nix on the mushing!" he said. "I'll stand for a hug once a day, but nix on the smear!"
"You'd let a dog," she whimpered. "I ain't kissed nothin' since granny sold the doll a lady gave me the time we went to the doctor's, an' took the money to get drunk on, an' beat me more'n I needed for a change, 'cause I cried for it. I think you might!"
"Aw well, go on then, if you're going to bawl," said Mickey, "but put it there!"
He stepped as far back as he could, leaned over, and swept the hair from his forehead, which he brought in range of her lips. He had to brace himself to keep from flinching at their cold touch and straightened in relief.
"Now that's over!" he said briskly. "I'll wash you, and get your breakfast."
"You do a lot of washin', don't you?" inquired Peaches.
"You want the sleep out of your eyes," coaxed Mickey.
He brought the basin and a cloth, washing the child's face and hands gently as was in his power.
"Flowersy-girl," he said, "if you'd looked last night like you do this morning, I'd never tackled getting you here in the world. I'd thought you'd break sure."
"G'wan kid," she said. "I can stand a lot. I been knocked round somepin awful. She dragged me by one hand or the hair when she was tight, and threw me in a corner an' took the"—Peaches glanced over the bed, refusing to call her former estate by the same name—"took the place herself. You ain't hurting me. You can jerk me a lot."
"I guess you've been jerked enough, Lily Peaches," he said. "I guess jerkin' ain't going to help your back any. I think we better be easy with it 'til we lay up the money to Carrel it. He put different legs on a dog, course he can put a new back on you."
"Dogs doesn't count only with rich folks 'at rides 'em, an' feeds 'em cake; but where'll you find 'nother girl 'at ull spare her back for me, Mickey-lovest?" asked Peaches.
"Gee, Lily!" he cried. "I didn't think of that—I wish I hadn't promised you. Course he could change the backs, but where'd I get one. I'll just have to let him take mine."
"I don't want no boy's back!" flashed Peaches. "I won't go out an' sell papers, an' wash you, an' feed you, an' let you stay here in this nice bed. I don't want no new back, grand like it is here. I won't have no dog's back, even. I won't have no back!"
"Course I couldn't let you work and take care of me, Lily," he said. "Course I couldn't! I was just thinking what I could do. I'll write a letter and ask the Carrel man if a dog's back would do. I could get one your size at the pound, maybe."
Peaches arose at him with hands set like claws.
"You fool!" she shrieked. "You big damn fool! 'A dog's back!' I won't! You try it an' I'll scratch your eyes out! You stop right now on backs an' go hell-bent an' get my breakfast! I'm hungry! I like my back! I will have it! You——"
Mickey snatched his pillow from the floor, using it to press the child against hers. Then he slipped it down a trifle at one corner and spoke:
"Now you cut that out, Miss Chicken, right off!" he said sternly. "I wouldn't take no tantrums from a dog, so I won't from you. You'll make your back worse acting like that, than beating would make it, and 'sides, if you're going to live with me, you must be a lady. No lady says such words as you used, and neither does no gentleman, 'cause I don't myself. Now you'll either say, 'Mickey, please get me my breakfast,' and I'll get you one with a big surprise, or you'll lay here alone and hungry 'til I come back to-night. And it'll be a whole day, see?"
"'F I wasn't a pore crippled kid, you wouldn't say that to me," she wailed.
"And if you wasn't 'a poor crippled kid,' you wouldn't say swearin's to me," said Mickey, "'cause you know I'd lick the stuffin' out of you, and if you could see yourself, you'd know that you need stuffin' in, more than you need it out. I'm 'mazed at you! Forget that you ever heard such stuff, and be a nice lady, won't you? My time's getting short and I got to go, or the other kids will sell to my paper men, then we'll have no supper. Now you say, 'Mickey, please get my breakfast,' like a lady, or you won't get a bite."
"'Mickey, please get my breakfast,'" she imitated.
Mickey advanced threateningly with the pillow.
"Won't do!" he said. "That ain't like no lady! That's like me. You'll say it like yourself, or you won't get it."
She closed her lips, burying her face in her own pillow.
"All right," said Mickey. "Then I'll get my own. If you don't want any, I'll have twice as much."
He laid the pillow on the foot of the bed, saying politely: "'Scuse me, Lily, till I get me a bottle of milk."
Soon he returned and with his first glimpse of the bed stood aghast. It was empty. His eyes searched the room. His pallet on the floor outlined a tiny form. A dismayed half smile flashed over his face. He took a step toward her, and then turned, getting out a cloth he had not used since being alone. Near the bed he set the table and laid a plate, knife, fork and spoon. Because he was watching Peaches he soon discovered she was peeking out at him, so he paid strict attention to the burner he was lighting.
Then he sliced bread, put on a toaster, set the milk on the table, broke an egg in a saucer, and turned the toast. Soon the odours filled the room, also a pitiful sound. Mickey knew Peaches must have hurt herself sliding from the bed, although her arms were strong for the remainder of her body. She had no way to reach his pallet but to roll across the floor. She might have bruised herself badly. He was amazed, disgusted, yet compassionate. He went to her and turned back the comfort.
"You must be speaking a little louder, Lily," he said gently. "I wasn't quite hearing you."
Only muffled sobbing. Mickey dropped the cover.
"I want my breakfast," said a very small voice.
"You mean, 'Mickey, please get my breakfast,' Flowersy-girl," he corrected gently.
"Oh I hurt myself so!" Peaches wailed. "Oh Mickey, I fell an' broke my back clear in two. 'Tain't like rollin' off my rags; oh Mickey, it's so far to the floor, from your bed! Oh Mickey, even another girl's back, or yours, or a dog's, or anybody's wouldn't fix it now. It'll hurt for days. Mickey, why did I ever? Oh what made me? Mickey-lovest, please, please put me back on the nice fine bed, an' do please give me some of that bread."
Mickey lifted her, crooning incoherent things. He wiped her face and hands, combed her hair, and pushed the table against the bed. He broke toast in a glass and poured milk over it. Then he cooked the egg and gave her that, keeping only half the milk and one slice of bread. He made a sandwich of more bread, and the cheese, put a banana with it, set a cup of water in reach, and told her that was her lunch; to eat it when the noon whistles blew. Then he laid all the picture books he had on the back of the bed, put the money for his papers in his pocket, and locking her in, ran down Sunrise Alley fast as he could.
He was one hour late. He had missed two regular customers. They must be made up and more. Light, air, cleanliness, and kindness would increase Peaches' appetite, which seemed big now for the size of her body. Mickey's face was very sober when he allowed himself to think of his undertaking. How would he make it? He had her now, he simply must succeed. The day was half over before Mickey began to laugh for no apparent reason. He had realized that she had not said what he had required of her, after all.
"Gee, I'm up against it," said Mickey. "I didn't s'pose she'd act like that! I thought she'd keep on being like when she woke up. I never behaved like that."
Then in swift remorse: "But I had the finest mother a fellow ever had to tell me, while she ain't had any one, and only got me now, so I'll have to tell her; course I can't do everything at once. So far as that goes, she didn't do any worse than the millyingaires' kids in the park who roll themselves in the dirt, bump their own heads, and scream and fight. I guess my kid's no worse than other people's. I can train her like mother did me; then we'll be enough alike we can live together, and even when she was the worst, I liked her. I liked her cartloads."
So Mickey shouldered the duties of paternity, and began thinking for his child, his little, neglected, bad, sick child. His wits and feet always had been nimble; that day he excelled himself. Anxiety as to how much he must carry home at night to replace what he had spent in moving Peaches to his room, three extra meals to provide before to-morrow night, something to interest her through the long day: it was a contract, surely! Mickey faced it gravely, but he did not flinch. He did not know how it was to be done, but he did know it must be done. "Get" her they should not. Whatever it had been his mother had feared for him, nameless though the horror was, from that he must save Lily. Mickey had thought it must be careless nurses or lack of love. Yesterday's papers had said there were some children at one of the Homes, no one ever visited; they were sick for love; would not some kind people come to see them? It must have been that she feared. He could not possibly know it was the stigma of having been a charity child she had been combating with all her power.
They had not "got" him; they must not "get" his Lily; yet stirrings in Mickey's brain told him he was not going to be sufficient, alone. There were emergencies he did not know how to manage. He must have help. Mickey revolved the problem in his worried head without reaching a solution. His necessity drove him. He darted, dodged and took chances. Far down the street he selected his victim and studied his method of assault as he approached; for Mickey did victimize people that day. He sold them papers when they did not want them. He bettered that and sold them papers when they had them. He snatched up lost papers, smoothed and sold them over. Every gay picture or broken toy dropped from an automobile he caught up and pocketed for her.
A woman stumbled alighting from a passing car. Mickey dropped his papers and sprang forward. Her weight bore him to the pavement, but he kept her from falling, and even as he felt her on her feet, he snatched under the wheels for her purse.
"Is that all your stuff, lady?" he asked.
"Thank you! I think so," she said. "Wait a minute!"
To lend help was an hourly occurrence with Mickey. She had been most particular to teach him that. He was gathering up and smoothing his papers several of which were soiled. The woman opened the purse he had rescued, taking therefrom a bill which she offered him.
"Thanks!" said Mickey. "My shoulder is worth considerable to me; but nothing like that to you, lady!"
"Well!" she said. "Are you refusing the money?"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "I ain't a beggar! Just a balance on my shoulder and picking up your purse ain't worth an endowment. I'll take five cents each for three soiled papers, if you say so."
"You amazing boy!" said the woman. "Don't you understand that if you hadn't offered your shoulder, I might now be lying senseless? You saved me a hard fall, while my dress would have been ruined. You step over here a minute. What's your name?"
"Michael O'Halloran," was the answer.
"Where do you live?"
"Sunrise Alley. It's miles on the cars, then some more walking," explained Mickey.
"Whom do you live with?"
"Myself," said Mickey.
"All but Peaches," said Mickey. "Lily Peaches."
"Who is Lily Peaches?"
"She's about so long"—Mickey showed how long—"and about so wide"—he showed how wide—"and white like Easter church flowers. Her back's bad. I'm her governor; she's my child."
"If you won't take the money for yourself, then take it for her," offered the woman. "If you have a little sick girl to support, you surely can use it."
"Umm!" said Mickey. "You kind of ball a fellow up and hang him on the ropes. Honest you do, lady! I can take care of myself. I know I can, 'cause I've done it three years, but I don't know how I'm goin' to make it with Lily, for she needs a lot. She may get sick any day, so I ain't sure how I'm going to manage well with her."
"How long have you taken care of her?"
"Since last night," explained Mickey.
"Oh! How old is she?" Questions seemed endless.
"I don't know," answered Mickey. "Her granny died and left her lying on rags in a garret. I found her screeching, so I took her to my castle and washed her, and fed her. You should see her now."
"I believe I should!" said the woman. "Let's go at once. You know Michael, you can't care for a girl. I'll put her in one of the beautiful Children's Homes—"
"Now nix on the Children's Homes, fair lady!" he cried angrily. "I guess you'll find her, 'fore you take her! I found her first, and she's mine! I guess you'll find her, 'fore you take her to a Children's Home, where the doctors slice up the poor kids for practice so they'll know how to get money for doing it to the rich ones. I've annexed Lily Peaches, and you don't 'get' her! See?"
"I see," said the woman. "But you're mistaken——"
"'Scuse crossing your wire, but I don't think I am," said Mickey. "The only way you can know, is to have been there yourself. I don't think you got that kind of a start, or want it for kids of your own. My mother killed herself to keep me out of it, and if it had been so grand, she'd wanted me there. Nix on the Orphings' Home talk. Lily ain't going to be raised in droves, nor flocks, nor herds! See? Lily's going to have a home of her own, and a man to take care of her by herself."
Mickey backed away, swallowing a big lump in his throat, and blinking down angry tears.
"'Smorning," he said, "I asked God to help me, and for a minute I was so glad, 'cause I thought He'd helped by sending you, so you could tell me how to do; but if God can't beat you, I can get along by myself."
"You can't take care of a girl by yourself," she insisted. "The law won't allow you."
"Oh can't I?" scoffed Mickey. "Well you're mistaken, 'cause I am! And getting along bully! You ought to seen her last night, and then this morning. Next time I yell for help, I won't ask to have anybody sent, I'll ask Him to help me save our souls, myself. Ever see that big, white, wonderful Jesus at the Cathedral door, ma'am, holding the little child in His arms so loving? I don't s'pose He stopped to ask whether it was a girl, or a boy, 'fore He took it up; He just opened his arms to the first child that needed Him. And if I remember right, He didn't say: 'Suffer little children to be sent to Orphings' Homes.' Mammy never read it to me that way. It was suffer them to come to 'Me,' and be took up, and held tender. See? Nix on the Orphings' Home people. They ain't in my class. Beaucheous lady, adoo! Farewell! I depart!"
Mickey wheeled, vanishing. It was a wonderful exhibition of curves, leaps, and darts. He paused for breath when he felt safe.
"So that's the dope!" he marvelled. "I can't take care of a girl? Going to take her away from me? I'd like to know why? Men all the time take care of women. I see boys taking care of girls I know their mothers left with them, every day—I'd like to know why. Mother said I was to take care of her. She said that's what men were made for. 'Cause he didn't take care of her, was why she was glad my father was dead. I guess I know what I'm doing! But I've learned something! Nix on the easy talk after this; and telling anybody you meet all you know. Shut mouth from now on. 'What's your name, little boy?' 'Andrew Carnegie.' 'Where d'you live?' 'Castle on the Hudson!' A mouth just tight shut about Lily, after this! And nix on the Swell Dames! Next one can bust her crust for all I care! I won't touch her!"
On the instant, precisely that thing occurred, at Mickey's very feet. With his lips not yet closed, he knelt to shove his papers under a woman's head, then went racing up the stone steps she had rolled down, his quick eye catching and avoiding the bit of fruit on which she had slipped. He returned in a second with help. As the porter lifted the inert body, Mickey slid his hands under her head, and advised: "Keep her straight!" Into one of the big hospitals he helped carry a blue and white clad nurse, on and on, up elevators and into a white porcelain room where they laid her on a glass table. Mickey watched with frightened eyes. Doctors and nurses came running. He stood waiting for his papers. He was rather sick, yet he remembered he had five there he must sell.
"Better clear out of here now!" suggested a surgeon.
"My papers!" said Mickey. "She fell right cross my feet. I slid them under, to make her head more pillowlike on the stones. Maybe I can sell some of them."
The surgeon motioned to a nurse at the door.
"Take this youngster to the office and pay him for the papers he has spoiled," he ordered.
"Will she—is she going to——?" wavered Mickey.
"I'm not sure," said the surgeon. "From the bleeding probably concussion; but she will live. Do you know how she came to fall?"
"There was a smear of something on the steps she didn't see," explained Mickey.
"Thank you! Go with the nurse," said the surgeon. Then to an attendant: "Take Miss Alden's number, and see to her case. She was going after something."
Mickey turned back. "Paper, maybe," he suggested, pointing to her closed hand. The surgeon opened it and found a nickel. He handed it to Mickey. "If you have a clean one left, let this nurse take it to Miss Alden's case, and say she has been assigned other duty. See to sending a substitute at once."
Every paper proved to be marked.
"I can bring you a fresh one in a second, lady," offered Mickey. "I got the money."
"All right," she said. "Wait with it in the office and then I'll pay you."
"I'm sent for a paper. I'm to be let in as soon as I get it," announced Mickey to the porter. "I ain't taking chances of being turned down," he said to himself, as he stopped a second to clean the step.
He returned and was waiting when the nurse came. She was young and fair faced; her hair was golden, and as she paid Mickey for his papers he wondered how soon he could have Lily looking like her. He took one long survey as he pocketed the money, thinking he would rush home at once; but he wanted to fix in his mind how Lily must appear, to be right, for he thought a nurse in the hospital would be right.
The nurse knew she was beautiful, and to her Mickey's long look was tribute, male tribute; a small male indeed, but such a winning one; so she took the occasion to be her loveliest, and smile her most attractive smile. Mickey surrendered. He thought she was like an angel, that made him think of Heaven, Heaven made him think of God, God made him think of his call for help that morning, the call made him think of the answer, the beautiful woman before him made him think that possibly she might be the answer instead of the other one. He rather doubted it, but it might be a chance. Mickey was alert for chances for Peaches, so he smiled again, then he asked: "Are you in such an awful hurry?"
"I think we owe you more than merely paying for your papers," she said. "What is it?"
Again Mickey showed how long and how wide Lily was. "And with hair like yours, and eyes and cheeks that would be, if she had her chance, and nobody to give her that chance but just me," he said. "Me and Lily are all each other's got," he explained hastily. "We're home folks. We're a family. We don't want no bunching in corps and squads. We're nix on the Orphings' Home business; but you must know, ma'am—would you, oh would you tell me just how I should be taking care of her? I'm doing everything like my mother did to me; but I was well and strong. Maybe Lily, being a girl, should have things different. A-body so beautiful as you, would tell me, wouldn't you?"
Then a miracle happened. The nurse, so clean she smelled like a drug store, so lovely she shone as a sunrise, laid an arm across Mickey's shoulders. "You come with me," she said. She went to a little room, and all alone she asked Mickey questions; with his eyes straight on hers, he answered. She told him surely he could take care of Lily. She explained how. She rang for a basket and packed it full of things he must have, showing him how to use them. She told him to come each Saturday at four o'clock, as she was going off duty, and tell her how he was getting along. She gave him a thermometer, and told him how to learn if the child had fever. She told him about food, and she put in an ointment, instructing him to rub the little back with it, so the bed would not be so tiresome. She showed him how to arrange the pillows; when he left, the tears were rolling down Mickey's cheeks. Both of them were so touched she laid her arm across his shoulder again and went as far as the elevator, while a passport to her at any time was in his pocket.
"I 'spect other folks tell you you are beautiful like flowers, or music, or colours," said Mickey in farewell, "but you look like a window in Heaven to me, and I can see right through you to God and all the beautiful angels; but what gets me is why the other one had to bust her crust, to make you come true!"
The nurse was laughing and wiping her eyes at the same time. Mickey gripped the basket until his hands were stiff as he sped homeward at least two hours early and happy about it. At the last grocery he remembered every word and bought bread, milk, and fruit with care "for a sick lady" he explained, so the grocer, who knew him, used care. Triumphing Mickey climbed the stairs. He paused a second in deep thought at the foot of the last flight, then ascended whistling to let Peaches know that he was coming, then on his threshold recited:
"One't a little kid named Lily, Was so sweet she'd knock you silly, Yellow hair in millying curls, Beat a mile all other girls."
She was on his bed; she was on his pillow; she had been lonely; both arms were stretched toward him.
"Mickey, hurry!" she cried. "Mickey, lemme hold you 'til I'm sure! Mickey, all day I didn't hardly durst breathe, fear the door'd open an' they'd 'get' me. Oh Mickey, you won't let them, will you?"
Mickey dropped his bundles and ran to the bed. This time he did not shrink from her wavering clasp. It was delight to come home to something alive, something that belonged to him, something to share with, something to work and think for, something that depended upon him.
"Now nix on the scare talk," he comforted. "Forget it! I've lived here three years alone, and not a single time has anybody come to 'get' me, so they won't you. There's only one thing can happen us. If I get sick or spend too much on eating, and don't pay the rent, the man that owns this building will fire us out. If we, if we" Mickey repeated impressively, "pay our rent regular, in advance, nobody will ever come, not ever, so don't worry."
"Then what's all them bundles?" fretted Peaches. "You ortn't a-got so much. You'll never get the next rent paid! They'll 'get' me sure."
"Now throttle your engine," advised Mickey. "Stop your car! Smash down on the brakes! They are things the city you reside in furnishes its taxpayers, or something like that. I pay my rent, so this is my share, and it's things for you: to make you comfortable. Which are you worst— tiredest, or hungriest, or hottest?"
"I don't know," she said.
"Then I'll make a clean get-a-way," said Mickey. "Washing is cooling; and it freshens you up a lot."
So Mickey brought his basin again, bathing the tired child gently as any woman could have done it.
"See what I got!" he cried as he opened bundles and explained. "I'm going to see if you have fever."
Peaches rebelled at the thermometer.
"Now come on in," urged Mickey. "Slide straight home to your base! If I'm going to take care of you, I'm going to right. You can't lay here eating wrong things if you have fever. No-sir-ee! You don't get to see in any more of these bundles, nor any supper, nor talked to any more, 'til you put this little glass thing under your tongue and hold it there just this way"—Mickey showed how—"three minutes by the clock, then I'll know what to do with you next. I'll sit beside you, and hold your hands, and tell you about the pretty lady that sent it."
Mickey wiped the thermometer on the sheet, then presented it. Peaches took one long look at him and opened her lips. Mickey inserted the tube, set the clock in sight, and taking both her hands he held them closely and talked as fast as he could to keep her from using them. He had not half finished the day when the time was up. If he had done it right, Peaches had very little, if any, fever.
"Now turn over so I can rub your back to make it all nice and rested," he said. "And then I'll get supper."
"I don't want my back rubbed," she protested. "My back's all right now."
"Nothing to do with going to have it rubbed," said Mickey. "It would be a silly girl who would have a back that wouldn't walk, and then wouldn't even try having it doctored, so that it would get better. Just try Lily, and if it doesn't help, I won't do it any more."
Peaches took another long look at Mickey, questioning in nature, then turned her back to him.
"Gosh, kid! Your back looks just like horses' going to the fertilizer plant," he said.
"Ain't that swearin's?" asked Peaches promptly.
"First-cousin," answered Mickey. "'Scuse me Lily. If you could see your back, you'd 'scuse worse than that."
"Feelin' ull do fer me," said Peaches. "I live wid it." "Honest kid, I'm scared to touch you," he wavered.
"Aw g'wan!" said Peaches. "I ain't goin' screechin' even if you hurt awful, an' you touch like a sparrer lookin' for crumbs. Mickey, can we put out a few?"
"For the sparrows? Sure!" cried Mickey. "They're the ones that God sees especial when they fall. Sure! Put out some in a minute. Still now!"
Mickey poured on ointment, then began softly rubbing it into the dreadful back. His face was drawn with anxiety and filled with horror. He was afraid, but the nurse said this he should do, while Mickey's first lesson had been implicit obedience. So he rubbed gently as he was fearful; when Peaches made no complaint, a little stronger, and a little stronger, until he was tired. Then he covered her, telling her to lie on it, and see how it felt. Peaches looked at him with wondering eyes.
"Mickey," she said, "nothin" in all my life ever felt like that, an' the nice cool washin' you do. Mickey-lovest, nex' time I act mean 'bout what you want to do to me, slap me good, an' hold me, an' go on an' do it!"
"Now nix on the beating," said Mickey. "I never had any from my mother; but the kids who lost sales to me took my nickels, and give me plenty. You ought to know, Lily, that I'm trying hard as I can to make you feel good; and to take care of you. What I want to do, I think will make you better, so I'm just nachally going to do it, 'cause you're mine, and you got to do what I say. But I won't say anything that'll hurt you and make you worse. If you must take time to think new things over, I can wait; but I can't hit you Lily, you're too little, too sick, and I like you too well. I wish you'd be a lady! I wish you wouldn't ever be bad again!"