Cupid Goes Slumming by Alice Hegan Rice

It is a debatable question whether love is a cause or an effect, whether Adam discovered a heart in the recesses of his anatomy before or after the appearance of Eve. In the case of Joe Ridder it was distinctly the former.

At nineteen his knowledge of the tender passion consisted of dynamic impressions received across the footlights at an angle of forty-five degrees. Love was something that hovered with the calcium light about beauty in distress, something that brought the hero from the uttermost parts of the earth to hurl defiance at the villain and clasp the swooning maiden in his arms; it was something that sent a fellow down from his perch in the peanut gallery with his head hot and his hands cold, and a sort of blissful misery rioting in his soul.

Joe lived in what was known by courtesy as Rear Ninth Street. "Rear Ninth Street" has a sound of exclusive aristocracy, and the name was a matter of some pride to the dwellers in the narrow, unpaved alley that writhed its watery way between two rows of tumble-down cottages, Joe's family consisted of his father, whose vocation was plumbing, and whose avocation was driving either in the ambulance or the patrol wagon; his mother, who had discharged her entire debt to society when she bestowed nine healthy young citizens upon it; eight young Ridders, and Joe himself, who had stopped school at twelve to assume the financial responsibilities of a rapidly increasing family.

Lack of time and the limited opportunities of Rear Ninth Street, together with an uncontrollable shyness, had brought Joe to his nineteenth year of broad-shouldered, muscular manhood, with no acquaintance whatever among the girls. But where a shrine is built for Cupid and the tapers are kept burning, the devotee is seldom disappointed.

One morning in October, as Joe was guiding his rickety wheel around the mud puddles on his way to the cooper shops, he saw a new sign on the first cottage after he left the alley—"Mrs. R. Beaver, Modiste & Dress Maker." In the yard and on the steps were a confusion of household effects, and in their midst a girl with a pink shawl over her head.

So absorbed was Joe in open-mouthed wonder over the "Modiste," that he failed to see the girl, until a laughing exclamation made him look up.

"Watch out!"

"What's the matter?" asked Joe, coming to a halt.

"I thought maybe you didn't know your wheels was going 'round!" the girl said audaciously, then fled into the house and slammed the door.

All day at the shops Joe worked as in a trance. Every iron rivet that he drove into a wooden hoop was duly informed of the romantic occurrence of the morning, and as some four thousand rivets are fastened into four thousand hoops in the course of one day, it will be seen that the matter was duly considered. The stray spark from a feminine eye had kindled such a fierce fire in his heart that by the time the six o'clock whistle blew the conflagration threw a rosy glow over the entire landscape.

As he rode home, the girl was sitting on the steps, but she would not look at him. Joe had formulated a definite course of action, and though the utter boldness of it nearly cost him his balance, he adhered to it strictly. When just opposite her gate, without turning his head or his eyes, he lifted his hat, then rode at a furious pace around the corner.

"What you tidying up so fer, Joe?" asked his mother that night; "you goin' out?"

"No," said Joe evasively, as he endeavoured in vain to coax back the shine to an old pair of shoes.

"Well, I'm right glad you ain't. Berney and Dick ain't got up the coal, and there's all them dishes to wash, and the baby she's got a misery in her year."

"Has paw turned up?" asked Joe.

"Yes," answered Mrs. Ridder indifferently. "He looked in 'bout three o'clock. He was tolerable full then, and I 'spec he's been took up by now. He said he was goin' to buy me a bird-cage with a bird in it, but I surely hope he won't. Them white mice he brought me on his last spree chewed a hole in Berney's stocking; besides, I never did care much for birds. Good lands! what are you goin' to wash yer head for?"

Joe was substituting a basin of water for a small girl in the nearest kitchen chair, and a howl ensued.

"Shut up, Lottie!" admonished Mrs. Ridder, "you ain't any too good to set on the floor. It's a good thing this is pay-day, Joe, for the rent's due and four of the children's got their feet on the ground. You paid up the grocery last week, didn't you!"

Joe nodded a dripping head.

"Well, I'll jes' git yer money out of yer coat while I think about it," she went on as she rummaged in his pocket and brought out nine dollars.

"Leave me a quarter," demanded Joe, gasping beneath his soap-suds.

"All right," said Mrs. Ridder accommodatingly; "now that Bob and Ike are gitting fifty cents a day, it ain't so hard to make out. I'll be gittin' a new dress first thing, you know."

"I seen one up at the corner!" said Joe.

"A new dress?"

"Naw, a dressmaker. She's got out her sign."

"What's her name?" asked Mrs. Ridder, keen with interest.

"Mrs. R. Beaver, Modiste," repeated Joe from the sign that floated in letters of gold in his memory.

"I knowed a Mrs. Beaver wunst, up on Eleventh Street—a big, fat woman that got in a fuss with the preacher and smacked his jaws."

"Did she have any children?" asked Joe.

"Seems like there was one, a pretty little tow-headed girl."

"That's her," announced Joe conclusively. "What was her name?"

"Lawsee, I don't know. I never would 'a' ricollected Mrs. Beaver 'cepten she was such a tarnashious woman, always a-tearin' up stumps, and never happy unless she was rippitin' 'bout somethin'. What you want? A needle and thread to mend your coat? Why, what struck you? You been wearin' it that a-way for a month. You better leave it be 'til I git time to fix it."

But Joe had determined to work out the salvation of his own wardrobe. Late in the evening after the family had retired, he sat before the stove with back humped and knees drawn up trying to coax a coarse thread through a small needle. Surely no rich man need have any fear about entering the kingdom of heaven since Joe Ridder managed to get that particular thread through the eye of that particular needle!

But when a boy is put at a work-bench at twelve years of age and does the same thing day in and day out for seven long years, he may have lost all of the things that youth holds dear, but one thing he is apt to have learned, a dogged, plodding, unquestioning patience that shoves silently along at the appointed task until the work is done.

By midnight all the rents were mended and a large new patch adorned each elbow. The patches, to be sure, were blue, and the coat was black, but the stitches were set with mechanical regularity. Joe straightened his aching shoulders and held the garment at arm's length with a smile. It was his first votive offering at the shrine of love.

The effect of Joe's efforts were prompt and satisfactory. The next day being Sunday, he spent the major part of it in passing and repassing the house on the corner, only going home between times to remove the mud from his shoes and give an extra brush to his hair. The girl, meanwhile, was devoting her day to sweeping off the front pavement, a scant three feet of pathway from her steps to the wooden gate. Every time Joe passed she looked up and smiled, and every time she smiled Joe suffered all the symptoms of locomotor ataxia!

By afternoon his emotional nature had reached the saturation point. Without any conscious volition on his part, his feet carried him to the gate and refused to carry him farther. His voice then decided to speak for itself, and in strange, hollow tones he heard himself saying—

"Say, do you wanter go to the show with me?"

"Sure," said the pink fascinator. "When?"

"I don't care," said Joe, too much embarrassed to remember the days of the week.

"To-morrer night?" prompted the girl.

"I don't care," said Joe, and the conversation seeming to lauguish, he moved on.

After countless eons of time the next night arrived. It found Joe and his girl cosily squeezed in between two fat women in the gallery of the People's Theatre. Joe had to sit sideways and double his feet up, but he would willingly have endured a rack of torture for the privilege of looking down on that fluffy, blond pompadour under its large bow, and of receiving the sparkling glances that were flashed up at him from time to time.

"I ain't ever gone with a feller that I didn't know his name before!" she confided before the curtain rose.

"It's Joe," he said, "Joe Ridder, What's your front name?"

"Miss Beaver," she said mischievously. "What do you think it is?"

Joe could not guess.

"Say," she went on, "I knew who you was all right even if I didn't know yer name. I seen you over to the hall when they had the boxin' match."

"The last one?"

"Yes, when you and Ben Schenk was fightin'. Say, you didn't do a thing to him!"

The surest of all antidotes to masculine shyness was not without its immediate effect. Joe straightened his shoulders and smiled complacently.

"Didn't I massacre him?" he said. "That there was a half-Nelson holt I give him. It put him out of business all right, all right. Say, I never knowed you was there!"

"You bet I was," said his companion in honest admiration; "that was when I got stuck on you!"

Before he could fully comprehend the significance of this confession, the curtain rose, and love itself had to make way for the tragic and absorbing career of "The Widowed Bride." By the end of the third act Joe's emotions were so wrought upon by the unhappy fate of the heroine, that he rose abruptly and, muttering something about "gittin' some gum," fled to the rear. When he returned and squeezed his way back to his seat he found "Miss Beaver" with red eyes and a dejected mien.

"What's the matter with you?" he asked banteringly.

"My shoe hurts me," said Miss Beaver evasively.

"What you givin' me?" asked Joe, with fine superiority. "These here kinds of play never hurts my feelin's none. Catch me cryin' at a show!"

But Miss Beaver was too much moved to recover herself at once. She sat in limp dejection and surreptitiously dabbed her eyes with her moist ball of a handkerchief.

Joe was at a loss to know how to meet the situation until his hand, quite by chance, touched hers as it lay on the arm of her chair. He withdrew it as quickly as if he had received an electric shock, but the next moment, like a lodestone following a magnet, it traveled slowly back to hers.

From that time on Joe sat staring straight ahead of him in embarrassed ecstasy, while Miss Beaver, thus comforted, was able to pass through the tragic finale of the last act with remarkable composure.

When the time came to say "Good night" at the Beavers' door, all Joe's reticence and awkwardness returned. He watched her let herself in and waited until she lit a candle. Then he found himself out on the pavement in the dark feeling as if the curtain had gone down on the best show be had ever seen. Suddenly a side window was raised cautiously and he heard his name called softly. He had turned the corner, but he went back to the fence.

"Say!" whispered the voice at the window, "I forgot to tell you—It's Mittie."

The course of true love thus auspiciously started might have flowed on to blissful fulfilment had it not encountered the inevitable barrier in the formidable person of Mrs. Beaver. Not that she disapproved of Mittie receiving attention; on the contrary, it was her oft-repeated boast that "Mittie had been keepin' company with the boys ever since she was six, and she 'spected she'd keep right on till she was sixty." It was not attention in the abstract that she objected to, it was rather the threatening of "a steady," and that steady, the big, awkward, shy Joe Ridder. With serpentine wisdom she instituted a counter-attraction.

Under her skilful manipulation, Ben Schenk, the son of the saloon-keeper, soon developed into a rival suitor. Ben was engaged at a down-town pool-room, and wore collars on a weekday without any apparent discomfort. The style of his garments, together with his easy air of sophistication, entirely captivated Mrs. Beaver, while Ben on his part found it increasingly pleasant to lounge in the Beavers' best parlour chair and recount to a credulous audience the prominent part which he was taking in all the affairs of the day.

Matters reached a climax one night when, after some close financing, Joe Ridder took Mittie to the Skating Rink. An unexpected run on the tin savings bank at the Ridders' had caused a temporary embarrassment, and by the closest calculation Joe could do no better than pay for two entrance-tickets and hire one pair of skates. He therefore found it necessary to develop a sprained ankle, which grew rapidly worse as they neared the rink.

"I don't think you orter skate on it, Joe!" said Mittie sympathetically.

"Oh, I reckon I kin manage it all O.K.," said Joe.

"But I ain't agoin' to let you!" she declared with divine authority. "We can just set down and rubber at the rest of them."

"Naw, you don't," said Joe; "you kin go on an' skate, and I'll watch you."

The arrangement proved entirely satisfactory so long as Mittie paused on every other round to rest or to get him to adjust a strap, or to hold her hat, but when Ben Schenk arrived on the scene, the situation was materially changed.

It was sufficiently irritating to see Ben go through an exhaustive exhibition of his accomplishments under the admiring glances of Mittie, but when he condescended to ask her to skate, and even offered to teach her some new figures, Joe's irritation rose to ire. In vain he tried to catch her eye; she was laughing and clinging to Ben and giving all her attention to his instructions.

Joe sat sullen and indignant, savagely biting his nails. He would have parted with everything he had in the world at that moment for three paltry nickels!

On and on went the skaters, and on and on went the music, and Joe turned his face to the wall and doggedly waited. When at last Mittie came to him flushed and radiant, he had no word of greeting for her.

"Did you see all the new steps Mr. Ben learnt me?" she asked.

"Naw," said Joe.

"Does yer foot hurt you, Joe?"

"Naw," said Joe.

Mittie was too versed in masculine moods to press the subject. She waited until they were out under the starlight in the clear stretch of common near home. Then she slipped her hand through his arm and said coaxingly—

"Say now, Joe, what you kickin' 'bout?"

"Him," said Joe comprehensively.

"Mr. Ben? Why, he's one of our best friends. Maw likes him better'n anybody I ever kept company with. What have all you fellers got against him?"

"He was black marveled at the hall all right," said Joe grimly.

"What for?"

"It ain't none of my business to tell what for," said Joe, though his lips ached to tell what he knew.

"Maw says all you fellows are jealous 'cause he talks so pretty and wears such stylish clothes."

"We might, too, if we got 'em like he done," Joe began, then checked himself. "Say, Mittie, why don't yer maw like me?"

"She says you haven't got any school education and don't talk good grammar."

"Don't I talk good grammar?" asked Joe anxiously.

"I don't know," said Mittie; "that's what she says. How long did you go to school?"

"Me? Oh, off and on 'bout two year. The old man was always poorly, and Maw, she had to work out, till me an' the boys done got big enough to work. 'Fore that I had to stay home and mind the kids. Don't I talk like other fellers, Mittie?"

"You talk better than some," said Mittie loyally.

After he left her, Joe reviewed the matter carefully. He thought of the few educated people he knew—the boss at the shops, the preacher up on Twelfth Street, the doctor who sewed up his head after he stopped a runaway team, even Ben Schenk, who had gone through the eighth grade. Yes, there was a difference. Being clean and wearing good clothes were not the only things.

When he got home, he tiptoed into the front room, and picking his way around the various beds and pallets, took Berney's school satchel from the top of the wardrobe. Retracing his steps, he returned to the kitchen, and with his hat still on and his coat collar turned up, he began to take an inventory of his mental stock.

One after another of the dog-eared, grimy books he pondered over, and one after another he laid aside, with a puzzled, distressed look deepening in his face.

"Berney she ain't but fourteen an' she gits on to 'em," he said to himself; "looks like I orter."

Once more he seized the nearest book, and with the courage of despair repeated the sentences again and again to himself.

"That you, Joe?" asked Mrs. Ridder from the next room an hour later. "I didn't know you'd come. Yer paw sent word by old man Jackson that he was at Hank's Exchange way down on Market Street, and fer you to come git him."

"It's twelve o'clock," remonstrated Joe.

"I know it," said Mrs. Ridder, yawning, "but I reckon you better go. The old man always gits the rheumatiz when he lays out all night, and that there rheumatiz medicine cost sixty-five cents a bottle!"

"All right," said Joe with a resignation born of experience, "but don't you go and put no more of the kids in my bed. Jack and Gus kick the stuffin' out of me now."

And with this parting injunction he went wearily out into the night, giving up his struggle with Minerva, only to begin the next round with Bacchus.

The seeds of ambition, though sown late, grew steadily, and Joe became so desirous of proving worthy of the consideration of Mrs. Beaver that he took the boss of the shops partially into his confidence.

"It's a first-rate idea, Joe," said the boss, a big, capable fellow who had worked his way up from the bottom. "I could move you right along the line if you had a better education. I have a good offer up in Chicago next year; if you can get more book sense in your head, I will take you along."

"Where can I get it at?" asked Joe, somewhat dubious of his own power of achievement.

"Night school," said the boss. "I know a man that teaches in the Settlement over on Burk Street. I'll put you in there if you like."

Now, the prospect of going to school to a man who had been head of a family for seven years, who had been the champion scrapper of the South End, who was in the midst of a critical love affair, was trebly humiliating. But Joe was game, and while he determined to keep the matter as secret as possible, he agreed to the boss's proposition.

"You're mighty stingy with yourself these days!" said Mittie Beaver one night a month later, when he stopped on his way to school.

Joe grinned somewhat foolishly. "I come every evenin'," he said.

"For 'bout ten minutes," said Mittie, with a toss of her voluminous pompadour; "there's some wants more'n ten minutes."

"Ben Schenk?" asked Joe, alert with jealousy.

"I ain't sayin'," went on Mittie. "What do you do of nights, hang around the hall?"

"Naw," said Joe indignantly. "There ain't nobody can say they've sawn me around the hall sence I've went with you!"

"Well, where do you go?"

"I'm trainin'," said Joe evasively.

"I don't believe you like me as much as you used to," said Mittie plaintively.

Joe looked at her dumbly. His one thought from the time he cooked his own early breakfast, down to the moment when he undressed in the cold and dropped into his place in bed between Gussie and Dick, was of her. The love of her made his back stop aching as he bent hour after hour over the machine; it made all the problems and hard words and new ideas at night school come straight at last; it made the whole sordid, ugly day swing round the glorious ten minutes that they spent together in the twilight.

"Yes, I like you all right," he said, twisting his big, grease-stained hands in embarrassment. "You're the onliest girl I ever could care about. Besides, I couldn't go with no other girl if I wanted to, 'cause I don't know none."

Is it small wonder that Ben Schenk's glib protestations, reinforced by Mrs. Beaver's own zealous approval, should have in time outclassed the humble Joe? The blow fell just when the second term of night school was over, and Joe was looking forward to long summer evenings of unlimited joy.

He had bought two tickets for a river excursion, and was hurrying into the Beavers' when he encountered a stolid bulwark in the form of Mrs. Beaver, whose portly person seemed permanently wedged into the narrow aperture of the front door. She sat in silent majesty, her hands just succeeding in clasping each other around her ample waist. Had she closed her eyes, she might have passed for a placid, amiable person, whose angles of disposition had also become curves. But Mrs. Beaver did not close her eyes. She opened them as widely as the geography of her face would permit, and coldly surveyed Joe Ridder.

Mrs. Beaver was a born manager; she had managed her husband into an untimely grave, she had managed her daughter from the hour she was born, she had dismissed three preachers, induced two women to leave their husbands, and now dogmatically announced herself arbiter of fashions and conduct in Rear Ninth Street.

"No, she can't see you," she said firmly in reply to Joe's question. "She's going out to a dance party with Mr. Schenk."

"Where at?" demanded Joe, who still trembled in her presence.

"Somewheres down town," said Mrs. Beaver, "to a real swell party."

"He oughtn't to take her to no down-town dance," said Joe, his indignation getting the better of his shyness. "I don't want her to go, and I'm going to tell her so."

"In-deed!" said Mrs. Beaver in scorn. "And what have you got to say about it? I guess Mr. Schenk's got the right to take her anywhere he wants to!"

"What right?" demanded Joe, getting suddenly a bit dizzy.

"'Cause he's got engaged to her. He's going to give her a real handsome turquoise ring, fourteen-carat gold."

"Didn't Mittie send me no word?" faltered Joe.

"No," said Mrs. Beaver unhesitatingly, though she had in her pocket a note for him from the unhappy Mittie.

Joe fumbled for his hat. "I guess I better be goin'," he said, a lump rising ominously in his throat. He got the gate open and made his way half dazed around the corner. As he did so, he saw a procession of small Ridders bearing joyously down upon him.

"Joe!" shrieked Lottie, arriving first, "Maw says hurry on home; we got another new baby to our house."

During the weeks that followed, Rear Ninth Street was greatly thrilled over the unusual event of a home wedding. The reticence of the groom was more than made up for by the bulletins of news issued daily by Mrs. Beaver. To use that worthy lady's own words, "she was in her elements!" She organised various committees—on decoration, on refreshment, and even on the bride's trousseau, tactfully permitting each assistant to contribute in some way to the general grandeur of the occasion.

"I am going to have this a real showy wedding," she said from her point of vantage by the parlour window, where she sat like a field-marshal and issued her orders. "Those paper fringes want to go clean across every one of the shelves, and you all must make enough paper roses to pin 'round the edges of all the curtains. Ever'thing's got to look gay and festive."

"Mittie don't look very gay," ventured one of the assistants. "I seen her in the kitchen cryin' a minute ago."

"Mittie's a fool!" announced Mrs. Beaver calmly. "She don't know a good thing when she sees it! Get them draperies up a little higher in the middle; I'm going to hang a silver horseshoe on to the loop."

The wedding night arrived, and the Beaver cottage was filled to suffocation with the élite of Rear Ninth Street. The guests found it difficult to circulate freely in the room on account of the elaborate and aggressive decorations, so they stood in silent rows awaiting the approaching ceremony. As the appointed hour drew near, and none of the groom's family arrived, a few whispered comments were exchanged.

"It's 'most time to begin," whispered the preacher to Mrs. Beaver, whose keen black eyes had been watching the door with growing impatience.

"Well, we won't wait on nobody," she said positively, as she rose and left the room to give the signal.

In the kitchen she found great consternation: the bride, pale and dejected in all her finery, sat on the table, all the chairs being in the parlour.

"What's the matter?" demanded Mrs. Beaver.

"He ain't come!" announced one of the women in tragic tones.

"Ben Schenk ain't here?" asked Mrs. Beaver in accents so awful that her listeners quaked. "Well, I'll see the reason why!"

Out into the night she sallied, picking her way around the puddles until she reached the saloon at the corner.

"Where's Ben Schenk?" she demanded sternly of the men around the bar.

There was an ominous silence, broken only by the embarrassed shuffling of feet.

Drawing herself up, Mrs. Beaver thumped the counter.

"Where's he at?" she repeated, glaring at the most embarrassed of the lot.

"He don't know where he's at," said the man. "I rickon he cilebrated a little too much fer the weddin'."

"Can he stand up?" demanded Mrs. Beaver.

"Not without starchin'," said the man, and amid the titter that followed, Mrs. Beaver made her exit.

On the corner she paused to reconnoitre. Across the street was her gaily lighted cottage, where all the guests were waiting. She thought of the ignominy that would follow their abrupt dismissal, she thought of the refreshments that must be used to-night or never, she thought of the little bride sitting disconsolate on the kitchen table.

With a sudden determination she decided to lead a forlorn hope. Facing about, she marched weightily around to the rear of the saloon and began laboriously to climb the steps that lead to the hall. At the door she paused and made a rapid survey of the room until she found what she was looking for.

"Joe Ridder!" she called peremptorily.

Joe, haggard and listless, put down his billiard-cue and came to the door.

Five minutes later a breathless figure presented himself at the Beaver kitchen. He had on a clean shirt and his Sunday clothes, and while he wore no collar, a clean handkerchief was neatly pinned about his neck.

"Everybody but the bride and groom come into the parlour," commanded Mrs. Beaver. "I'm a-going to make a speech, and tell 'em that the bride has done changed her mind."

Joe and Mittie, left alone, looked at each other in dazed rapture. She was the first to recover.

"Joe!" she cried, moving timidly towards him, "ain't you mad? Do you still want me?"

Joe, with both hands entangled in her veil and his feet lost in her train, looked down at her through swimming eyes.

"Want yer?" he repeated, and his lips trembled, "gee whiz! I feel like I done ribbeted a hoop round the hull world!"

The signal was given for them to enter the parlour, and without further interruption the ceremony proceeded, if not in exact accordance with the plans of Mrs. Beaver, at least in obedience to the mandate of a certain little autocrat who sometimes takes a hand in the affairs of man even in Rear Ninth Street.