Curbstone Theatricals

— I once told the Club of various children encountered in city streets, each of whom, though

“Like the snow-fall in the river,
A moment white, then melts forever,”

had nevertheless in that moment contrived to win upon my affections. The snowflake melts forever, but other snowflakes come, and now I am again begging listeners for a small budget of news from the pavement.

One day, as I was walking up Broadway from the Battery, my attention was attracted by a tenement-house little girl swinging along before me. She was, I suppose, about ten years old; ragged, certainly not clean, though still not looking altogether uneared for. What caught my eye was the enjoying, free, unconscious gusto with which she was taking life. Her movement, the expression of her back (which was all I saw), fairly sang the fact aloud, to a simple-minded tune.

I kept her in sight for some minutes, and then Real Life, who sometimes for a moment shows the instinct of an artist, favored me with one glimpse of my heroine doing something in character. She stopped at an old woman’s apple-stand, laid down a coin, took up an apple, and set her teeth in it instantly. As she accomplished her bite, the old woman held out her change to her. You will live long before you see anything more sweetly magnificent than the gesture and movement with which my Lady Bountiful, without turning her rough little head, gently pushed hack the change-laden hand and went swiftly on her way. The tender, joyous pride of it was enough to give one hysterics, between laughing and crying. But, fortunately doubtless, our sensibility to mere spectacle in life rarely so far overcomes us ; and as for me, on this occasion, I only hurried on to catch a glimpse of Lady Bountiful’s face, but I never caught it. In a moment she plunged into a little crowd gathered about something — I don’t know what — in the street; and the last I saw of her, she — still eating her apple — was gallantly working her way to its front with a zeal and courage I could not imitate.

Not long ago I watched from my window a more complex ease of infantine charity. A much-disheveled, shabby woman had come along and seated herself in a doorway opposite. Mine is not a neighborhood too fine to let many of its children play in the street, and soon there gathered about the sorry wayfarer a curious group of them. I suppose they soon might have been pelting her with stones, but I find the fact illustrative not only of the plasticity of children, but of the impressionability of the race, that they became very differently occupied. This “ drunk lady,” as they doubtless called her, despite the lingering disqualifications of the intoxication from which she was plainly but just emerging, had even now a genius for managing mankind. She had so tar come to herself as to desire a respectable appearance. It was to attain this laudable ambition and some others that she engaged the children’s assistance. She took off her hat, let down her hair, drew from her pocket a folded white apron, which she shook out carefully and laid on a fold of her dress beside her, and all the time she held her growing audience in what must have been fascinating conversation. I wish I could have heard it. The existence of her charm was further attested in three minutes by the eagerness with which competing messengers sped upon her errands. One came back with a wet handkerchief ; another with a comb (!); another, though the drunk lady had furnished no pennies, with a bunch of radishes, obtained, as I saw, at the corner grocery. She at once sent another child for salt, as the event proved ; then wiped her face and hands well with the handkerchief, and gave her attention to reshaping her battered hat and fastening properly its trimmings, getting pins from sympathetic hoys as well as girls.

When the salt came she made a modest meal, sharing it with no one ; but those children hung around her, not familiarly, but with a touch of awe, while she ate, as if the sight were in some occult way a feast for their souls. She needed more pins than they could furnish on the spot, and when, her radishes eaten, she returned to the care of her toilet, raiders on the domestic stock of various homes brought them to her, and hairpins as well. The ardor and devotion of her ministers did not flag during the half-hour she stayed among them ; and when, finally, vastly changed in appearance, she took herself off, I had not a doubt that the change helped her incalculably to make her peace with whomsoever she wished to conciliate. The children followed her to the corner, where, evidently at a word from her thrown over her shoulder, and without further pantomime of leave-taking, they stopped, and watched her out of sight.

I was glad and grateful when she gave that word, “ Thus far and no farther,” for I had made up my mind that she was the last incarnation of the Pied Piper of Hamebn, and that if she would she might leave us with not a little girl or boy to bless ourselves with for blocks around.