Perhaps the most poignant and touching feature of the days that followed was not the sight of this stricken giant, lying majestic and aloof in his unwonted black; nor of the boy Dirk, mystified but elated, too, with the unaccustomed stir and excitement; nor of the shabby little farm that seemed to shrink and dwindle into further insignificance beneath the sudden publicity turned upon it. No; it was the sight of Selina, widowed, but having no time for decent tears. The farm was there; it must be tended. Illness, death, sorrow--the garden must be tended, the vegetables pulled, hauled to market, sold. Upon the garden depended the boy's future, and hers.
For the first few days following the funeral one or another of the neighbouring farmers drove the DeJong team to market, aided the blundering Jan in the fields. But each had his hands full with his own farm work. On the fifth day Jan Steen had to take the garden truck to Chicago, though not without many misgivings on Selina's part, all of which were realized when he returned late next day with half the load still on his wagon and a sum of money representing exactly zero in profits. The wilted left-over vegetables were dumped behind the barn to be used later as fertilizer.
"I didn't do so good this time," Jan explained, "on account I didn't get no right place in the market."
"You started early enough."
"Well, they kind of crowded me out, like. They see I was a new hand and time I got the animals stabled and come back they had the wagon crowded out, like."
Selina was standing in the kitchen doorway, Jan in the yard with the team. She turned her face toward the fields. An observant person (Jan Steen was not one of these) would have noted the singularly determined and clear-cut jaw-line of this drably calicoed farm woman.
"I'll go myself Monday."
Jan stared. "Go? Go where, Monday?"
At this seeming pleasantry Jan Steen smiled uncertainly, shrugged his shoulders, and was off to the barn. She was always saying things that didn't make sense. His horror and unbelief were shared by the rest of High Prairie when on Monday Selina literally took the reins in her own slim work-scarred hands.
"To market!" argued Jan as excitedly as his phlegmatic nature would permit. "A woman she don't go to market. A woman----"
"This woman does." Selina had risen at three in the morning. Not only that, she had got Jan up, grumbling. Dirk had joined them in the fields at five. Together the three of them had pulled and bunched a wagon load. "Size them," Selina ordered, as they started to bunch radishes, beets, turnips, carrots. "And don't leave them loose like that. Tie them tight at the heads, like this. Twice around with the string, and through. Make bouquets of them, not bunches. And we're going to scrub them."
High Prairie washed its vegetables desultorily; sometimes not at all. Higgledy piggledy, large and small, they were bunched and sold as vegetables, not objets d'art. Generally there was a tan crust of good earth coating them which the housewife could scrub off at her own kitchen sink. What else had housewives to do!
Selina, scrubbing the carrots vigorously under the pump, thought they emerged from their unaccustomed bath looking like clustered spears of pure gold. She knew better, though, than to say this in Jan's hearing. Jan, by now, was sullen with bewilderment. He refused to believe that she actually intended to carry out her plan. A woman--a High Prairie farmer's wife--driving to market like a man! Alone at night in the market place--or at best in one of the cheap rooming houses! By Sunday somehow, mysteriously, the news had filtered through the district. High Prairie attended the Dutch Reformed church with a question hot on its tongue and Selina did not attend the morning services. A fine state of things, and she a widow of a week! High Prairie called at the DeJong farm on Sunday afternoon and was told that the widow was over in the wet west sixteen, poking about with the boy Dirk at her heels.
The Reverend Dekker appeared late Sunday afternoon on his way to evening service. A dour dominie, the Reverend Dekker, and one whose talents were anachronistic. He would have been invaluable in the days when New York was New Amsterdam. But the second and third generations of High Prairie Dutch were beginning to chafe under his old-world régime. A hard blue eye, had the Reverend Dekker, and a fanatic one.
"What is this talk I hear, Mrs. DeJong, that you are going to the Haymarket with the garden stuff, a woman alone?"
"Dirk goes with me."
"You don't know what you are doing, Mrs. DeJong. The Haymarket is no place for a decent woman. As for the boy! There is card-playing, drinking--all manner of wickedness--daughters of Jezebel on the street, going among the wagons."
"Really!" said Selina. It sounded thrilling, after twelve years on the farm.
"You must not go."
"The vegetables are rotting in the ground. And Dirk and I must live."
"Remember the two sparrows. 'One of them shall not fall on the ground without'--Matthew X-29."
"I don't see," replied Selina, simply, "what good that does the sparrow, once it's fallen."
By Monday afternoon the parlour curtains of every High Prairie farmhouse that faced the Halsted road were agitated as though by a brisk wind between the hours of three and five, when the market wagons were to be seen moving toward Chicago. Klaas Pool at dinner that noon had spoken of Selina's contemplated trip with a mingling of pity and disapproval.
"It ain't decent a woman should drive to market."
Mrs. Klaas Pool (they still spoke of her as the Widow Paarlenberg) smiled her slippery crooked smile. "What could you expect! Look how she's always acted."
Klaas did not follow this. He was busy with his own train of thought. "It don't seem hardly possible. Time she come here school teacher I drove her out and she was like a little robin or what, set up on the seat. She says, I remember like yesterday, cabbages was beautiful. I bet she learned different by this time."
But she hadn't. So little had Selina learned in these past eleven years that now, having loaded the wagon in the yard she surveyed it with more sparkle in her eye than High Prairie would have approved in a widow of little more than a week. They had picked and bunched only the best of the late crop--the firmest reddest radishes, the roundest juiciest beets; the carrots that tapered a good seven inches from base to tip; kraut cabbages of the drumhead variety that were flawless green balls; firm juicy spears of cucumber; cauliflower (of her own planting; Pervus had opposed it) that looked like a bride's bouquet. Selina stepped back now and regarded this riot of crimson and green, of white and gold and purple.
"Aren't they beautiful! Dirk, aren't they beautiful!"
Dirk, capering in his excitement at the prospect of the trip before him, shook his head impatiently. "What? I don't see anything beautiful. What's beautiful?"
Selina flung out her arms. "The--the whole wagon load. The cabbages."
"I don't know what you mean," said Dirk. "Let's go, Mother. Aren't we going now? You said as soon as the load was on."
"Oh, Sobig, you're just exactly like your----" She stopped.
"Like my what?"
"We'll go now, son. There's cold meat for your supper, Jan, and potatoes all sliced for frying and half an apple pie left from noon. Wash your dishes--don't leave them cluttering around the kitchen. You ought to get in the rest of the squash and pumpkins by evening. Maybe I can sell the lot instead of taking them in by the load. I'll see a commission man. Take less, if I have to."
She had dressed the boy in his home-made suit cut down from one of his father's. He wore a wide-brimmed straw hat which he hated. Selina had made him an overcoat of stout bean-sacking and this she tucked under the wagon seat, together with an old black fascinator, for though the September afternoon was white-hot she knew that the evenings were likely to be chilly, once the sun, a great crimson Chinese balloon, had burned itself out in a blaze of flame across the prairie horizon. Selina herself, in a full-skirted black-stuff dress, mounted the wagon agilely, took up the reins, looked down at the boy seated beside her, clucked to the horses. Jan Steen gave vent to a final outraged bellow.
"Never in my life did I hear of such a thing!"
Selina turned the horses' heads toward the city. "You'd be surprised, Jan, to know of all the things you're going to hear of some day that you've never heard of before." Still, when twenty years had passed and the Ford, the phonograph, the radio, and the rural mail delivery had dumped the world at Jan's plodding feet he liked to tell of that momentous day when Selina DeJong had driven off to market like a man with a wagon load of hand-scrubbed garden truck and the boy Dirk perched beside her on the seat.
If, then, you had been travelling the Halsted road, you would have seen a decrepit wagon, vegetable-laden, driven by a too-thin woman, sallow, bright-eyed, in a shapeless black dress, a battered black felt hat that looked like a man's old "fedora" and probably was. Her hair was unbecomingly strained away from the face with its high cheek bones, so that unless you were really observant you failed to notice the exquisite little nose or the really fine eyes so unnaturally large now in the anxious face. On the seat beside her you would have seen a farm boy of nine or thereabouts--a brown freckle-faced lad in a comically home-made suit of clothes and a straw hat with a broken and flopping brim which he was forever jerking off only to have it set firmly on again by the woman who seemed to fear the effects of the hot afternoon sun on his close-cropped head. But in the brief intervals when the hat was off you must have noted how the boy's eyes were shining.
At their feet was the dog Pom, a mongrel whose tail bore no relation to his head, whose ill-assorted legs appeared wholly at variance with his sturdy barrel of a body. He dozed now, for it had been his duty to watch the wagon load at night, while Pervus slept.
A shabby enough little outfit, but magnificent, too. Here was Selina DeJong driving up the Halsted road toward the city instead of sitting, black-robed, in the farm parlour while High Prairie came to condole. In Selina, as they jogged along the hot dusty way, there welled up a feeling very like elation. Conscious of this, the New England strain in her took her to task. "Selina Peake, aren't you ashamed of yourself! You're a wicked woman! Feeling almost gay when you ought to be sad.... Poor Pervus... the farm... Dirk... and you can feel almost gay! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
But she wasn't, and knew it. For even as she thought this the little wave of elation came flooding over her again. More than ten years ago she had driven with Klaas Pool up that same road for the first time, and in spite of the recent tragedy of her father's death, her youth, her loneliness, the terrifying thought of the new home to which she was going, a stranger among strangers, she had been conscious of a warm little thrill of elation, of excitement--of adventure! That was it. "The whole thing's just a grand adventure," her father, Simeon Peake, had said. And now the sensations of that day were repeating themselves. Now, as then, she was doing what was considered a revolutionary and daring thing; a thing that High Prairie regarded with horror. And now, as then, she took stock. Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die, though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.
And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.
"What are you laughing at, Mom?"
That sobered her. "Oh, nothing, Sobig. I didn't know I was laughing. I was just thinking about a red dress I had when I first came to High Prairie a girl. I've got it yet."
"What's that to laugh at?" He was following a yellow-hammer with his eyes.
"Nothing. Mother said it was nothing."
"Wisht I'd brought my sling-shot." The yellow-hammer was perched on the fence by the roadside not ten feet away.
"Sobig, you promised me you wouldn't throw at any more birds, ever."
"Oh, I wouldn't hit it. I would just like to aim at it."
Down the hot dusty country road. She was serious enough now. The cost of the funeral to be paid. The doctor's bills. Jan's wage. All the expenses, large and small, of the poor little farm holding. Nothing to laugh at, certainly. The boy was wiser than she.
"There's Mrs. Pool on her porch, Mom. Rocking."
There, indeed, was the erstwhile Widow Paarlenberg on her porch, rocking. A pleasant place to be in mid-afternoon of a hot September day. She stared at the creaking farm wagon, vegetable laden; at the boy perched on the high seat; at the sallow shabby woman who was charioteer for the whole crazy outfit. Mrs. Klaas Pool's pink face creased in a smile. She sat forward in her chair and ceased to rock.
"Where you going this hot day, Mis' DeJong?"
Selina sat up very straight. "To Bagdad, Mrs. Pool."
"To--Where's that? What for?"
"To sell my jewels, Mrs. Pool. And to see Aladdin, and Harun-al-Rashid and Ali Baba. And the Forty Thieves."
Mrs. Pool had left her rocker and had come down the steps. The wagon creaked on past her gate. She took a step or two down the path, and called after them. "I never heard of it. Bag--How do you get there?"
Over her shoulder Selina called out from the wagon seat. "You just go until you come to a closed door. And you say 'Open Sesame!' and there you are."
Bewilderment shadowed Mrs. Pool's placid face. As the wagon lurched on down the road it was Selina who was smiling and Mrs. Pool who was serious.
The boy, round eyed, was looking up at his mother. "That's out of Arabian Nights, what you said. Why did you say that?" Suddenly excitement tinged his voice. "That's out of the book. Isn't it? Isn't it! We're not really----"
She was a little contrite, but not very. "Well, not really, perhaps. But 'most any place is Bagdad if you don't know what will happen in it. And this is an adventure, isn't it, that we're going on? How can you tell! All kind of things can happen. All kinds of people. People in disguise in the Haymarket. Caliphs, and princes, and slaves, and thieves, and good fairies, and witches."
"In the Haymarket! That Pop went to all the time! That is just dumb talk."
Within Selina something cried out, "Don't say that, Sobig! Don't say that!"
On down the road. Here a head at a front room window. There a woman's calicoed figure standing in the doorway. Mrs. Vander Sijde on the porch, fanning her flushed face with her apron; Cornelia Snip in the yard pretending to tie up the drooping stalks of the golden-glow and eyeing the approaching team with the avid gossip's gaze. To these Selina waved, bowed, called.
"How d'you do, Mrs. Vander Sijde!"
A prim reply to this salutation. Disapproval writ large on the farm-wife's flushed face.
A pretended start, notable for its bad acting. "Oh, is it you, Mrs. DeJong! Sun's in my eyes. I couldn't think it was you like that."
Women's eyes, hostile, cold, peering.
Five o'clock. Six. The boy climbed over the wheel, filled a tin pail with water at a farmhouse well. They ate and drank as they rode along, for there was no time to lose. Bread and meat and pickles and pie. There were vegetables in the wagon, ripe for eating. There were other varieties that Selina might have cooked at home in preparation for this meal--German celery root boiled tender and soaked in vinegar; red beets, pickled; onions; coleslaw; beans. They would have regarded these with an apathetic eye all too familiar with the sight of them. Selina knew now why the Pools' table, in her school-teacher days, had been so lacking in the green stuff she had craved. The thought of cooking the spinach which she had planted, weeded, spaded, tended, picked, washed, bunched, filled her with a nausea of distaste such as she might have experienced at the contemplation of cannibalism.
The boy had started out bravely enough in the heat of the day, sitting up very straight beside his mother, calling to the horses, shrieking and waving his arms at chickens that flew squawking across the road. Now he began to droop. Evening was coming on. A cool blanket of air from the lake on the east enveloped them with the suddenness characteristic of the region, and the mist began to drift across the prairie, softening the autumn stubble, cooling the dusty road, misting the parched willows by the roadside, hazing the shabby squat farmhouses.
She brushed away the crumbs, packed the remaining bread and meat thriftily into the basket and covered it with a napkin against the boy's future hunger should he waken in the night.
"No. Should say not." His lids were heavy. His face and body, relaxed, took on the soft baby contours that come with weariness. The sun was low. Sunset gloried the west in a final flare of orange and crimson. Dusk. The boy drooped against her heavy, sagging. She wrapped the old black fascinator about him. He opened his eyes, tugged at the wrapping about his shoulders. "Don't want the old thing... fas'nator... like a girl..." drooped again with a sigh and found the soft curve where her side just cushioned his head. In the twilight the dust gleamed white on weeds, and brush, and grass. The far-off mellow sonance of a cowbell. Horses' hoofs clopping up behind them, a wagon passing in a cloud of dust, a curious backward glance, or a greeting exchanged.
One of the Ooms boys, or Jakob Boomsma. "You're never going to market, Mis' DeJong!" staring with china-blue eyes at her load.
"Yes, I am, Mr. Boomsma."
"That ain't work for a woman, Mis' DeJong. You better stay home and let the men folks go."
Selina's men folks looked up at her--one with the asking eyes of a child, one with the trusting eyes of a dog. "My men folks are going," answered Selina. But then, they had always thought her a little queer, so it didn't matter much.
She urged the horses on, refusing to confess to herself her dread of the destination which they were approaching. Lights now, in the houses along the way, and those houses closer together. She wrapped the reins around the whip, and holding the sleeping boy with one hand reached beneath the seat with the other for the coat of sacking. This she placed around him snugly, folded an empty sack for a pillow, and lifting the boy in her arms laid him gently on the lumpy bed formed by the bags of potatoes piled up just behind the seat in the back of the wagon. So the boy slept. Night had come on.
The figure of the woman drooped a little now as the old wagon creaked on toward Chicago. A very small figure in the black dress and a shawl over her shoulders. She had taken off her old black felt hat. The breeze ruffled her hair that was fine and soft, and it made a little halo about the white face that gleamed almost luminously in the darkness as she turned it up toward the sky.
"I'll sleep out with Sobig in the wagon. It won't hurt either of us. It will be warm in town, there in the Haymarket. Twenty-five cents--maybe fifty for the two of us, in the rooming house. Fifty cents just to sleep. It takes hours of work in the fields to make fifty cents."
She was sleepy now. The night air was deliciously soft and soothing. In her nostrils was the smell of the fields, of grass dew-wet, of damp dust, of cattle; the pungent prick of goldenrod, and occasionally a scented wave that meant wild phlox in a near-by ditch. She sniffed all this gratefully, her mind and body curiously alert to sounds, scents, forms even, in the darkness. She had suffered much in the past week; had eaten and slept but little. Had known terror, bewilderment, agony, shock. Now she was relaxed, receptive, a little light-headed perhaps, what with under-feeding and tears and over-work. The racking process had cleared brain and bowels; had washed her spiritually clean; had quickened her perceptions abnormally. Now she was like a delicate and sensitive electric instrument keyed to receive and register; vibrating to every ether wave.
She drove along in the dark, a dowdy farm woman in shapeless garments; just a bundle on the rickety seat of a decrepit truck wagon. The boy slept on his hard lumpy bed like the little vegetable that he was. The farm lights went out. The houses were blurs in the black. The lights of the city came nearer. She was thinking clearly, if disconnectedly, without bitterness, without reproach.
"My father was wrong. He said that life was a great adventure--a fine show. He said the more things that happen to you the richer you are, even if they're not pleasant things. That's living, he said. No matter what happens to you, good or bad, it's just so much--what was that word he used?--so much--oh, yes--'velvet.' Just so much velvet. Well, it isn't true. He had brains, and charm, and knowledge and he died in a gambling house, shot while looking on at some one else who was to have been killed.... Now we're on the cobblestones. Will Dirk wake up? My little So Big.... No, he's asleep. Asleep on a pile of potato sacks because his mother thought that life was a grand adventure--a fine show--and that you took it as it came. A lie! I've taken it as it came and made the best of it. That isn't the way. You take the best, and make the most of it... Thirty-fifth Street, that was. Another hour and a half to reach the Haymarket.... I'm not afraid. After all, you just sell your vegetables for what you can get.... Well, it's going to be different with him. I mustn't call him Sobig any more. He doesn't like it. Dirk. That's a fine name. Dirk DeJong.... No drifting along for him. I'll see that he starts with a plan, and follows it. He'll have every chance. Every chance. Too late for me, now, but he'll be different.... Twenty-second Street... Twelfth... Look at all the people!... I'm enjoying this. No use denying it. I'm enjoying this. Just as I enjoyed driving along with Klaas Pool that evening, years and years ago. Scared, but enjoying it. Perhaps I oughtn't to be--but that's hypocritical and sneaking. Why not, if I really do enjoy it! I'll wake him.... Dirk! Dirk, we're almost there. Look at all the people, and the lights. We're almost there."
The boy awoke, raised himself from his bed of sacking, looked about, blinked, sank back again and curled into a ball. "Don't want to see the lights... people..."
He was asleep again. Selina guided the horses skilfully through the downtown streets. She looked about with wide ambient eyes. Other wagons passed her. There was a line of them ahead of her. The men looked at her curiously. They called to one another, and jerked a thumb in her direction, but she paid no heed. She decided, though, to have the boy on the seat beside her. They were within two blocks of the Haymarket, on Randolph Street.
"Dirk! Come, now. Come up here with mother." Grumbling, he climbed to the seat, yawned, smacked his lips, rubbed his knuckles into his eyes.
"What are we here for?"
"So we can sell the garden truck and earn money."
"To send you to school to learn things."
"That's funny. I go to school already."
"A different school. A big school."
He was fully awake now, and looking about him interestedly. They turned into the Haymarket. It was a tangle of horses, carts, men. The wagons were streaming in from the German truck farms that lay to the north of Chicago as well as from the Dutch farms that lay to the southwest, whence Selina came. Fruits and vegetables--tons of it--acres of it--piled in the wagons that blocked the historic square. An unarmed army bringing food to feed a great city. Through this little section, and South Water Street that lay to the east, passed all the verdant growing things that fed Chicago's millions. Something of this came to Selina as she manoeuvred her way through the throng. She felt a little thrill of significance, of achievement. She knew the spot she wanted for her own. Since that first trip to Chicago with Pervus in the early days of her marriage she had made the journey into town perhaps not more than a dozen times, but she had seen, and heard, and remembered. A place near the corner of Des Plaines, not at the curb, but rather in the double line of wagons that extended down the middle of the road. Here the purchasing pedlers and grocers had easy access to the wagons. Here Selina could display her wares to the best advantage. It was just across the way from Chris Spanknoebel's restaurant, rooming house, and saloon. Chris knew her; had known Pervus for years and his father before him; would be kind to her and the boy in case of need.
Dirk was wide awake now; eager, excited. The lights, the men, the horses, the sound of talk, and laughter, and clinking glasses from the eating houses along the street were bewilderingly strange to his country-bred eyes and ears. He called to the horses; stood up in the wagon; but clung closer to her as they found themselves in the thick of the mêlée.
On the street corners where the lights were brightest there were stands at which men sold chocolate, cigars, collar buttons, suspenders, shoe strings, patent contrivances. It was like a fair. Farther down the men's faces loomed mysteriously out of the half light. Stolid, sunburned faces now looked dark, terrifying, the whites of the eyes very white, the mustaches very black, their shoulders enormous. Here was a crap game beneath the street light. There stood two girls laughing and chatting with a policeman.
"Here's a good place, Mother. Here! There's a dog on that wagon like Pom."
Pom, hearing his name, stood up, looked into the boy's face, quivered, wagged a nervous tail, barked sharply. The Haymarket night life was an old story to Pom, but it never failed to stimulate him. Often he had guarded the wagon when Pervus was absent for a short time. He would stand on the seat ready to growl at any one who so much as fingered a radish in Pervus's absence.
"Down, Pom! Quiet, Pom!" She did not want to attract attention to herself and the boy. It was still early. She had made excellent time. Pervus had often slept in snatches as he drove into town and the horses had lagged, but Selina had urged them on to-night. They had gained a good half hour over the usual time. Halfway down the block Selina espied the place she wanted. From the opposite direction came a truck farmer's cart obviously making for the same stand. For the first time that night Selina drew the whip out of its socket and clipped sharply her surprised nags. With a start and a shuffle they broke into an awkward lope. Ten seconds too late the German farmer perceived her intention, whipped up his own tired team, arrived at the spot just as Selina, blocking the way, prepared to back into the vacant space.
"Heh, get out of there you----" he roared; then, for the first time, perceived in the dim light of the street that his rival was a woman. He faltered, stared open-mouthed, tried other tactics. "You can't go in there, missus."
"Oh, yes, I can." She backed her team dexterously.
"Yes, we can!" shouted Dirk in an attitude of fierce belligerence.
From the wagons on either side heads were lifted. "Where's your man?" demanded the defeated driver, glaring.
"Here," replied Selina; put her hand on Dirk's head.
The other, preparing to drive on, received this with incredulity. He assumed the existence of a husband in the neighbourhood--at Chris Spanknoebel's probably, or talking prices with a friend at another wagon when he should be here attending to his own. In the absence of this, her natural protector, he relieved his disgruntled feelings as he gathered up the reins. "Woman ain't got no business here in Haymarket, anyway. Better you're home night time in your kitchen where you belong."
This admonition, so glibly mouthed by so many people in the past few days, now was uttered once too often. Selina's nerves snapped. A surprised German truck farmer found himself being harangued from the driver's seat of a vegetable wagon by an irate and fluent woman in a mashed black hat.
"Don't talk to me like that, you great stupid! What good does it do a woman to stay home in her kitchen if she's going to starve there, and her boy with her! Staying home in my kitchen won't earn me any money. I'm here to sell the vegetables I helped raise and I'm going to do it. Get out of my way, you. Go along about your business or I'll report you to Mike, the street policeman."
Now she clambered over the wagon wheel to unhitch the tired horses. It is impossible to tell what interpretation the dumfounded north-sider put upon her movements. Certainly he had nothing to fear from this small gaunt creature with the blazing eyes. Nevertheless as he gathered up his reins terror was writ large on his rubicund face.
"Teufel! What a woman!" Was off in a clatter of wheels and hoofs on the cobblestones.
Selina unharnessed swiftly. "You stay here, Dirk, with Pom. Mother'll be back in a minute." She marched down the street driving the horses to the barns where, for twenty-five cents, the animals were to be housed in more comfort than their owner. She returned to find Dirk deep in conversation with two young women in red shirtwaists, plaid skirts that swept the ground, and sailor hats tipped at a saucy angle over pyramidal pompadours.
"I can't make any sense out of it, can you, Elsie? Sounds like Dirt to me, but nobody's going to name a kid that, are they? Stands to reason."
"Oh, come on. Your name'll be mud first thing you know. Here it's after nine already and not a----" she turned and saw Selina's white face.
"There's my mother," said Dirk, triumphantly, pointing. The three women looked at each other. Two saw the pathetic hat and the dowdy clothes, and knew. One saw the red shirtwaists and the loose red lips, and knew.
"We was just talking to the kid," said the girl who had been puzzled by Dirk's name. Her tone was defensive. "Just asking him his name, and like that."
"His name is Dirk," said Selina, mildly. "It's a Dutch name--Holland, you know. We're from out High Prairie way, south. Dirk DeJong. I'm Mrs. DeJong."
"Yeh?" said the other girl. "I'm Elsie. Elsie from Chelsea, that's me. Come on, Mabel. Stand gabbin' all night." She was blonde and shrill. The other was older, dark-haired. There was about her a paradoxical wholesomeness.
Mabel, the older one, looked at Selina sharply. From the next wagon came loud snores issuing from beneath the seat. From down the line where a lantern swung from the tailboard of a cart came the rattle of dice. "What you doing down here, anyway?"
"I'm here to sell my stuff to-morrow morning. Vegetables. From the farm."
Mabel looked around. Hers was not a quick mind. "Where's your man?"
"My husband died a week ago." Selina was making up their bed for the night. From beneath the seat she took a sack of hay, tight-packed, shook out its contents, spread them evenly on the floor of the wagon, at the front, first having unhinged the seat and clapped it against the wagon side as a headboard. Over the hay she spread empty sacking. She shook out her shawl, which would serve as cover. The girl Mabel beheld these preparations. Her dull eyes showed a gleam of interest which deepened to horror.
"Say, you ain't never going to sleep out here, are you? You and the kid. Like that!"
"Well, for----" She stared, turned to go, came back. From her belt that dipped so stylishly in the front hung an arsenal of jangling metal articles--purse, pencil, mirror, comb--a chatelaine, they called it. She opened the purse now and took from it a silver dollar. This she tendered Selina, almost roughly. "Here. Get the kid a decent roost for the night. You and the kid, see."
Selina stared at the shining round dollar; at Mabel's face. The quick sting of tears came to her eyes. She shook her head, smiled. "We don't mind sleeping out here. Thank you just the same--Mabel."
The girl put her dollar plumply back into her purse. "Well, takes all kinds, I always say. I thought I had a bum deal but, say, alongside of what you got I ain't got it so worse. Place to sleep in, anyways, even if it is--well, good-night. Listen to that Elsie, hollering for me. I'm comin'! Shut up!"
You heard the two on their way up the street, arm in arm, laughing.
"Are we going to sleep here!" He was delighted.
"Right here, all snug in the hay, like campers."
The boy lay down, wriggling, laughing. "Like gypsies. Ain't it, Mom?"
"'Isn't it,' Dirk--not 'ain't it'." The school teacher.
She lay down beside him. The boy seemed terribly wide awake. "I liked the Mabel one best, didn't you? She was the nicest, h'm?"
"Oh, much the nicest," said Selina, and put one arm around him and drew him to her, close. And suddenly he was asleep, deeply. The street became quieter. The talking and laughter ceased. The lights were dim at Chris Spanknoebel's. Now and then the clatter of wheels and horses' hoofs proclaimed a late comer seeking a place, but the sound was not near by, for this block and those to east and west were filled by now. These men had been up at four that morning, must be up before four the next.
The night was cool, but not cold. Overhead you saw the wide strip of sky between the brick buildings on either side of the street. Two men came along singing. "Shut up!" growled a voice from a wagon along the curb. The singers subsided. It must be ten o'clock and after, Selina thought. She had with her Pervus's nickel watch, but it was too dark to see its face, and she did not want to risk a match. Measured footsteps that passed and repassed at regular intervals. The night policeman.
She lay looking up at the sky. There were no tears in her eyes. She was past tears. She thought, "Here I am, Selina Peake, sleeping in a wagon, in the straw, like a bitch with my puppy snuggled beside me. I was going to be like Jo in Louisa Alcott's book. On my feet are boots and on my body a dyed dress. How terribly long it is going to be until morning... I must try to sleep.... I must try to sleep..."
She did sleep, miraculously. The September stars twinkled brightly down on them. As she lay there, the child in her arms, asleep, peace came to the haggard face, relaxed the tired limbs. Much like another woman who had lain in the straw with her child in her arms almost two thousand years before.