Mrs. Stanisfield was making her way to her roof-garden.
“If any callers come,” she said to her parlour-maid, “bring them up here.”
Presently there was an exclamation, “What cheer!”
Margaretta looked around. Her irrepressible sister Berty stood in the French window, her dark head thrust forward inquiringly.
“Come out, dear,” said Mrs. Stanisfield, “I am alone.”
“I want to have a talk,” said Berty, coming forward, “and have you anything to eat? I am hungry as a guinea-pig.”
“There is a freezer of ice-cream over there behind those azaleas—the cake is in a covered dish.”
Berty dipped out a saucerful of ice-cream, cut herself a good-sized piece of cake, and then took a low seat near her sister, who was examining her curiously.
“Berty,” said Margaretta, suddenly, “you have something to tell me.”
Berty laughed. “How queer things are. Two months ago we had plenty of money. Then Grandma lost everything. We had to go and live in that old gone-to-seed mansion on River Street—you know what a dirty street it is?”
“Yes, I know—I wish I didn’t.”
“I’m not sorry we went. I’ve had such experiences. I thought I wouldn’t tell you, Margaretta, till all was over. You might worry.”
“What have you been doing?” asked Margaretta, anxiously.
“You remember how the neighbours thought we were missionaries when we first moved to the street?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And when I spoke sharply to a slow workman, an impudent boy called out that the missionary was mad?”
“Yes, I recall it—what neighbours!”
“I shall never forget that first evening,” said Berty, musingly. “Grandma and I were sitting by the fire—so tired after the moving—when a dozen of those half-washed women came edging in with Bibles and hymn-books under their arms.”
“It was detestable,” said Margaretta, with a shrug of her shoulders, “but does it not worry you to repeat all this?”
“No, dearest, I am working up to something. You remember the women informed us in a mousie way that they had come to have a prayer-meeting, and I cuttingly told them that we weren’t ready for callers. Dear Grandma tried to smooth it over by saying that while we had a great respect for religious workers, we did not belong to them, but her salve didn’t cover the wound my tongue had made.”
“What do you mean?” asked Margaretta.
“Here begins the part that is new to you,” said Berty, jubilantly. “To snub one’s neighbours is a dangerous thing. Every tin can and every decrepit vegetable in our yard next morning eloquently proclaimed this truth.”
“You don’t mean to say they had dared—”
“Had dared and done—and our yard had just been so nicely cleaned. Well, I was pretty mad, but I said nothing. Next morning there was more rubbish—I went into the street. There was no policeman in sight, so I went to the city hall. Underneath is a place, you know, where policemen lounge till they have to go on their beats.”
“No, I don’t know. I never was in the city hall in my life. You didn’t go alone, Berty?”
“Yes, I did—why shouldn’t I? I’m a free-born American citizen. Our grandfather was one of the leading men of this city. His taxes helped to build that hall. I’ve a right there, if I want to go.”
“But without a chaperon, and you are so young, and—and—”
“I was going to say pretty,” remarked Margaretta, severely.
“Beautiful is stronger,” said Berty, calmly. “What a lovely view you have from this roof-garden, Margaretta. How it must tranquillize you to gaze at those trees and flower-beds when anything worries you.”
“Do go on, Berty—what did you do at the city hall?”
“A big policeman asked what I wanted. I thought of one of dear grandfather’s sayings, ‘Never deal with subordinates if you can get at principals,’ so I said, ‘I want to see your head man.’”
“That’s an African tribe expression, I think,” murmured Margaretta.
“Evidently, for he grinned and said, ‘Oh, the chief,’ and he opened the door of a private office”.
“Another big man sat like a mountain behind a table. He didn’t get up when I went in—just looked at me.”
“‘Are you over the police of this city?’” I asked.
“‘I am,’ he said.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’ve come to apply to you for protection. My neighbours throw tin cans in my back yard every night, and I don’t like it.’
“He grinned from ear to ear, and asked me where I lived.
“‘On River Street,’ I said.
“He gave a whistle and stared at me. I didn’t have on anything remarkable—only a black cloth walking-skirt with a round hat, and that plain-looking white shirt-waist you gave me with the pretty handwork.”
“Which cost forty dollars,” said Margaretta, under her breath.
“Well, that man stared at me,” went on Berty, “and then what do you think he said in an easy tone of voice—‘And what have you been doing to your neighbours, my dear?’
“Margaretta, I was furious. ‘Get up out of your seat,’ I said, in a choking voice. ‘Take that cap off your head, and remember that you are in the presence of a lady. My grandfather was the late Judge Travers of this city, my brother-in-law is Mr. Roger Stanisfield, of the Stanisfield Iron Works, and my great-uncle is governor of the State. I’ll have you put out of office if you say “my dear” to me again.’”
Margaretta held her breath. Berty’s face was flaming at the reminiscence, and her ice-cream was slipping to the floor. “What did he say?” she gasped.
“I wish you could have seen him, Margaretta. He looked like a bumptious old turkey gobbler, knocked all of a heap by a small-sized chicken.
“‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, scuttling out of his seat, ‘I’m sure, Miss, I didn’t dream who you were.’
“‘It isn’t your business to dream,’ I said, still furious. ‘When a woman comes to you with a complaint, treat her civilly. You’re nothing but the paid servant of the city. You don’t own the citizens of Riverport!’
“That finished him. ‘I’m going now,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to sit down. See that you attend to that matter without delay,’ and I stalked out, and he followed me with his mouth open, and if I didn’t know what had happened, I’d say he was standing at that door yet gazing up the street after me.”
“What did happen?” asked Margaretta, eagerly.
“I got my back yard cleaned,” said Berty, drily. “Grandma says two policemen came hurrying up the street before I got home. They went into some of the houses, then women came out, and boys swarmed over our fence, and in an hour there wasn’t the ghost of a tin can left.”
“Think of it,” said Margaretta, “what wretched things for you to be exposed to—what degradation!”
“It isn’t any worse for me than for other women and girls,” said Berty, doggedly, “and I’m going to find out why River Street isn’t treated as well as Grand Avenue.”
“But River Street people are poor, Berty.”
“Suppose they are poor, aren’t they the children of the city?”
“But, Berty—workmen and that sort of people can’t have fine houses, and horses and carriages.”
“Not for horses and carriages, not for fine houses am I pleading, but for equal rights in comfort and decency. Would you take your cold dip every morning if you had to cross a frozen yard in winter, and a filthy yard in summer for every drop of water you use?”
“Would you have your house kept clean if it were so dark that you couldn’t see the dirty corners?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Margaretta, decidedly, “but who owns those dreadful places?”
“You do,” said Berty, shortly.
“I do!” said Margaretta, aghast.
“Yes—some of them. Roger holds property down there in your name. All the rich people in the city like to invest in River Street tenements. They’re always packed.”
“I won’t have it,” said Margaretta. “Roger shall sell out.”
“Don’t sell—improve your property, and get some of the stain off your soul. Women should ask their husbands where they invest their money. Good old Mrs. Darlway, the temperance worker, owns a building with a saloon in it.”
“Oh, misery!” exclaimed Margaretta, “she doesn’t know it, of course.”
“How have you found all this out, Berty?”
“I’ve talked to the women.”
“What—the women of the tin can episode?”
“Oh, they’re all over that now—they understand Grandma and me—and what a lot of things they’ve told me. Haven’t you always thought that policemen were noble, kind creatures, like soldiers?”
“Yes,” said Margaretta, innocently, “aren’t they?”
“They’re the most miserable of miserable sinners.”
“Oh, Berty, surely not all!”
“Well, I’ll be generous and leave out half a dozen if it will please you. The others all take bribes.”
“Yes, bribes. Did you ever see a lean policeman, Margaretta?”
“I don’t know.”
“I never did—they’re all fat as butter, like the sinners in the Psalms. Now, no one need ever tell me that the police are honest, till I see them all get lean with chasing after evil. Now they just stand round corners like green bay-trees, and take bribes.”
Margaretta was silent for a long time, pondering over this new department of thought opened up to her. Then she said, “Why don’t you get the women to leave this hateful neighbourhood?”
“How can they?” said her sister, mournfully, “their husbands work on the wharves. But I mustn’t make you too gloomy. Let me tell you about the heart of the Mayor.”
“You were dreadfully sad just after you went to River Street,” said Margaretta; “was this the trouble?”
“Yes,” said Berty, lowering her voice, “the woes of the poor were sinking into my heart.”
“Poor child—but take your ice-cream. It is melting and slipping down your gown, and the dog has eaten your cake.”
“Has he?” said Berty, indifferently. “Well, dog, take the ice-cream, too. I want to talk—I came out of our house one morning, Margaretta; there were three pitiful little children on the door-step. ‘Children, do get out of this,’ I said. ‘We may have callers, and you look like imps.’”
“Have you had any more callers?” asked Margaretta, eagerly.
“Yes, the Everests, and Brown-Gardners, and Mrs. Darley-James.”
“Yes, Mrs. Darley-James, that fastidious dame. I’ve read that when you get poor, your friends forsake you, but ours have overwhelmed us with attentions.”
“Grandma is an exceptional woman,” said Margaretta, proudly.
“And do you know every one of those women noticed the children. Mrs. Darley-James nearly fainted. I had to go to the door with her, as we have no well-trained maid, but only that stupid woman of the neighbourhood. ‘Why, the children all look ill,’ Mrs. Darley-James said.
“‘A good many of them are,’ I replied. ‘Two died in that yellow house last night.’
“She said, ‘Oh, horrible!’ and got into her carriage. Well, to come back to this day that I stood on the door-step talking to the children. They looked up at me, the dear little impudent things, and said, ‘We ain’t goin’ to move one step, missus, ’cause you gets the sun longer on your side of the street than we does.’
“What they said wasn’t remarkable, but I choked all up. To think of those pale-faced babies manœuvering to sit where they could catch the sun as he peeped shyly at them over the roofs of the tall houses. I felt as if I should like to have the demon of selfishness by the throat and shake him till I choked him. Then I flew to the city hall—”
“The city hall again?” murmured Margaretta.
“Yes—what is the city hall but a place of refuge for the children of the city? I asked to see the Mayor. A young man in the other office said he was busy.”
“‘Then I’ll wait,’ I said, and I sat down.
“He kept me sitting there for a solid hour. You can imagine that I was pretty well annoyed. At the end of that time three fat, prosperous-looking men walked from the inner sanctum, and I was invited to go in.”