THE BATTLE OF MAXWELL STREET

During all these busy days Petite Jeanne did not entirely lose track of
her friend Merry of the smiling Irish eyes. Being endowed with a
particularly friendly nature, she was more than glad to find friends
outside the little circle in which she moved. Besides, she was deeply
grateful to the little girl who had led her to the place where she had,
in so miraculous a manner, purchased the priceless Fire God for only
three silver coins.

“It was the beginning of all my good fortune,” she said to Merry on one
occasion. “And,” she added quickly, “all my very hard work as well.”

So it happened more than once that she took the elevated train to the
office where the auction sale of unclaimed, and damaged express packages
was held every Friday. There she sat in the front row beside Merry and
enjoyed two hours of relaxation. The endless variety of goods on sale,
from a baby buggy without wheels to a black and white puppy with an
enticing bark, intrigued her more and more; particularly the “union,”
Merry’s little circle of choice friends.

To a casual observer these men would have seemed a rough lot. Soon
enough Jeanne, with her power of looking into men’s hearts, learned that
these men who struggled daily for their bread had been endowed by nature
with hearts of gold.

Their interest in Merry was of a fatherly and sportsman-like sort.
Knowing her brother and his handicaps they were glad to help her.

Unfortunately, at this time there was little they could do for her. Each
Friday she brought a smaller purse and carried fewer articles away. The
little basement shop, where Tad toiled incessantly, was feeling the
pinch of hard times. Few were the visitors that came down the cellar
stairs these days, and fewer still were the purchases they carried away.
Only when the blue eyes of the girl spied some article for which she had
an immediate sale did she venture a bid.

More than once when some particular member of the “union” had made a
fortunate purchase and met with an immediate sale, he offered Merry a
loan. Always the answer was the same: a loyal Irish smile and, “Thanks.
You’ll be needing it next time.”

Little wonder that Petite Jeanne, sitting in the glowing light of such
glorious friendships, absorbed warmth that carried her undaunted through
rehearsals amid the cold and forbidding circle within the old Blackmoore
walls.

It was on one of these visits to the auction house that the little
French girl received an invitation to an unusual party.

Weston, the ruddy-faced German who kept a shop near Maxwell street,
together with Kay King and a stout man known by the name of John, had
bid in a large number of traveling bags and trunks. They were an unusual
lot, these bags and boxes. Many of the trunks were plastered from end to
end with foreign labels. Three of the bags, all exactly alike, were of
the sort carried only by men of some importance who reside in the
British Isles.

“How I’d love to see what’s in them!” Jeanne exclaimed.

“Do you want to know?” Weston demanded. “Then I’ll tell you. Junk!
That’s all. I buy only junk. Inside these are some suits. Moths eat
holes in them. Silk dresses, maybe; all mildewed.”

“Must be fun to open them, though. You never can tell what you might
find.”

“Ja, you can never tell,” Weston agreed.

“Do you want to see what’s in them?” Kay King, who was young and good
looking, leaned forward. “Come down to Maxwell Street on Sunday. We’ll
save them until then, won’t we?” He appealed to his companions.

“Ja, sure!”

“Sure we will!”

Petite Jeanne turned to Merry. “Will you go?” she asked, suddenly grown
timid.

“Yes, I’d like to,” Merry assented quickly. “I’ve never seen their
shops. I’d love to.”

“All right,” Jeanne said with a smile. “We’ll come. And perhaps we’ll
bring some friends.”

“Ja, bring friends. As many as you like. Mebby we could perhaps sell
them some suitcases?”

Kay King gave Jeanne his card. And there, for the time, the matter
rested. But Jeanne did not allow it to escape her memory. It was to be,
she told herself, one of the strangest and most interesting opening-up
parties it had been her privilege to attend.

That night Petite Jeanne once more danced alone beneath the yellow glow
of Jimmie’s spotlight. The affair of two nights before had frightened
her more than she cared to admit. But this little French girl possessed
an indomitable spirit. She knew what she wanted; knew quite as well why
she wanted it, and was resolved that, come what might, she should have
it.

On this particular night she would gladly have taken her strong and
fearless companion, Florence, with her to the theatre. But Florence had
come upon a bit of good fortune; she had been employed to conduct
classes in a settlement house gymnasium two hours each evening.

“That,” she had exclaimed joyously, “means bread and butter!”

So Petite Jeanne had come alone. And why not? Was not Jimmie over there
in the balcony? And was not her friend, the night watchman, somewhere in
the building?

“What of the gypsy who would steal your god if he might?” Florence had
asked.

“Well, what of him?” Jeanne had demanded. “We haven’t seen him prowling
about, have we? Given up, and gone south. That’s what I think. In New
Orleans by this time.”

Long ere this, as you will recall, Jeanne had resolved what she should
do on the opening night. When the curtain rose for her first big scene,
when she received the cue to begin her dance, she would make it _her_
dance indeed. At that moment, before the throng of first-nighters, she
would defy the tyrannical director. She would forget the steps they had
taught her. Before the gypsy campfire she would become a gypsy once
again and dance, as never before, that native dance to the Fire God.
Bihari, the gypsy, had taught her that dance, and there was nothing like
it in all the world, she felt sure.

It was a daring resolve and might, she knew, result in disaster. Yet the
very daring of it inspired her. And why not? Was she not after all, in
spirit at least, a gypsy, a free soul unhampered by the shams and fake
pretenses, the senseless conventions of a city’s life?

With this in mind, she danced in the dark theatre with utter abandon.
Forgetting all but the little Fire God whose tiny eyes glowed at the rim
of the yellow circle of light, she danced as she had many times by the
roadsides of France.

She had reached the very zenith of the wild whirl. It seemed to Jimmie
that she would surely leave the floor and soar aloft, when suddenly he
became conscious that all was not well. He read it in her face. She did
not stop dancing. She did not so much as speak; yet her lips formed
words and Jimmie read them:

“Wings, fluttering of wings!”

“A plague on the wings!” exclaimed Jimmie, as his muscles stiffened in
readiness for an emergency.

Wings! Did he hear them? He could not be sure. He would see what he
could see!

He touched a button and a light flashed brightly from a white globe
aloft.

His keen eyes searched the place in vain. Yet sixty seconds had not
elapsed before there came the sound of a slight impact, followed by a
terrific crash. The light above blinked out.

In his excitement, Jimmie threw off the spotlight and the theatre
beneath him became a well of darkness.

And what of Jeanne? When the crash came her dance ended. When the
spotlight blinked out she sprang back in terror. At that instant
something touched her ankle.

With a little cry of fright, she bounded forward. Her foot came in
contact with some solid object and sent it spinning.

“The Fire God!” she thought in consternation. “I have kicked him across
the stage.”

Then the house lights flashed on, and all was light as day.

Flashing a quick look about the stage, the girl found everything as it
had been, except that the Fire God was standing on his head in a corner,
and half way down the center aisle was a pile of shattered glass. This
glass had, a moment before, been the white globe aloft.

“Jimmie!” she called. “It’s all right. The globe fell, that’s all.”

“Must have been loose,” Jimmie grumbled. “Good thing it fell now. Might
have killed somebody.”

But Jeanne was sure it had not been loose. She had not forgotten that
flutter of wings.

“Some one,” she told herself, “is trying to frighten me. But I shan’t be
frightened.”

At that she walked to the corner of the stage, took up her Fire God,
slipped on her coat and prepared to go home.

“Jimmie,” she called, loud enough for anyone who might be hiding in the
place to hear, “that’s all for to-night. But come again day after
to-morrow. What do you say?”

“O. K.,” Jimmie shouted back.

Jeanne was to regret this rashness, if rashness it might be called.

“But what is it?” Petite Jeanne stepped back, half in terror, as she
gripped Florence’s arm and stared about her.

They had just alighted from a Halsted Street car and had entered the
maze of booths, carts, rough board counters, and wagons. “This is
Maxwell Street on a bright Sunday afternoon in late autumn,” replied
Merry with a smile.

They were on their way, Petite Jeanne and Merry, to the promised party
at which many mysterious bags and trunks were to be opened. Florence was
with them; so, too, was Angelo. Dan Baker also had agreed to come at the
last moment. So they were quite a party, five in all.

About these portable stores swarmed a motley throng. Some were white,
some brown, some black. All, stall keepers and prospective purchasers
alike were poor, if one were to judge by attire.

“Don’t be afraid,” Merry smiled at the little French girl. “These are
harmless, kindly people. They are poor, to be sure. But in this world,
ninety out of every hundred are poor and probably always will be.

“Some of these people have a few poor things to sell. The others hope to
purchase them at a bargain; which indeed they often do.

“So you see,” she ended, “like other places in the world, Maxwell Street
deserves its place in the sun, for it serves the poor of this great
city. What could be nobler?”

“Ah, yes, What could be nobler?” the little French girl echoed.

“How strange!” she murmured as they walked along. “There is no order
here. See! There are shoes. Here are cabbages. And here are more shoes.
There are chickens. Here are more shoes. And yonder are stockings to go
with the shoes. How very queer.”

“Yes,” Florence sighed, “there is no order in the minds of the very
poor. Perhaps that is why they are poor.”

“Come!” Merry cried impatiently. “We must find the shops of our friends.
They are on Peoria Street. Two blocks up.”

“Lead the way.” Petite Jeanne motioned her friends to follow.

As they wedged their way through the throng, Petite Jeanne found her
spirits drooping. “How sad it all seems!” she thought to herself. “There
is a little dried up old lady. She must be eighty. She’s trying to sell
a few lemons. And here is a slip of a girl. How pinched her face is!
She’s watching over a few wretched stockings. If you whistled through
them they’d go into rags.

“And yet,” she was ready to smile again, “they all seem cheerful.”

She had said this last aloud. “Yes,” Merry answered, “cheerful and kind.
Very considerate of one another. It is as if suffering, hunger, rags,
disease, brought friends who cannot be bought with gold.”

“It is true. And such a beautiful truth. I—”

Petite Jeanne broke short off, then dodged quickly to one side. She had
barely escaped being run down by an automobile. Coming in from behind,
the driver had not honked his horn.

The man was large. The companion at his side was large. The bright blue
car was large. The whole outfit fairly oozed comfort, riches and
self-satisfaction.

“Stand gawking around and you’ll get a leg taken off!” The driver’s
voice was harsh, unkind. He spoke to the little French girl.

The hot fire that smouldered behind Angelo’s dark eyes blazed forth.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” he demanded in a fury. “Running
people down! Crowding them about! You with your big car! If you want to
gaze, why don’t you walk as we do?”

The car came to a halt. A deep flush had spread over the driver’s face.
Springing from the car, he launched a blow that sent the slight Italian
youth spinning into the crowd behind him.

But what was this? Hardly had the man swayed back, a leer of
satisfaction on his face, than a whirling catapult launched itself upon
him. A circle of steel closed about his neck. He found himself whirling
through space. He landed with a mighty clatter atop a pile of frying
pans and stew kettles.

Quickly scrambling to his feet, he glowered at the gathering throng as
he demanded,

“Who did that?”

For the count of ten, no one answered. Then a scrawny little Irishman,
who wore a Cross of Honor on his ragged jacket, pushed Florence forward
as he whispered hoarsely,

“Tell ’im, Miss. I’m wid y’. Me, as never lost a battle yet.”

“I did!” The girl’s words were clear and quite distinct.

A hush fell over the thickening crowd. A fight on Maxwell Street is
always an occasion. But a fight between a prosperous man and a good
looking girl! Who had seen this before?

Florence, as you will recall, was not one of those weaklings who subsist
on pickles and ice-cream in order to develop a slender figure. She
weighed one hundred and sixty, was an athletic instructor, knew a few
tricks and was hard as a rock.

There was no fight. The man looked her up and down. Then he called her a
name. It was a nasty name, seldom heard on Maxwell Street. For the
people there, though poor, are a gentle folk.

Then Maxwell Street, slow going, gentle, kindly, poverty-stricken
Maxwell Street, went mad. Who threw the first ripe tomato that struck
this prosperous insulter squarely on the jaw? No one will ever know.
Enough that it was thrown. It was followed quickly by a bushel more, and
after that by a cart load of over-ripe fish.

When at last the irate but badly beaten man of importance turned his car
southward and fled from Maxwell Street, his beautiful car was no longer
blue. It was tomato-pink and fish-yellow. And his costume matched the
car.

Then Maxwell Street indulged in a good laugh. In this laugh Angelo did
not join. He divided his attention between the business of nursing his
swollen jaw and paying the poor venders of tomatoes and fish for their
missing wares.

“Some people,” he might have been heard to grumble to himself, “talk too
much.”

“The battle of Maxwell Street!” exclaimed Merry at his elbow. Her eyes
shone. “And we won!”

“I am sure of it!” Angelo agreed heartily. “However, I am out four
dollars and sixty-five cents for fish and tomatoes.”

“But look!” Merry pointed to the battered little Irishman with the Cross
of Honor. “He is taking up a collection. You will be paid.”

“No, no! That cannot be!” True distress was in the Italian boy’s eyes.
“Stop him.”

“No. We must not!” Merry’s tone was tense with emotion. “You are their
hero. You stood up for their rights. Would you be so mean as to rob them
of the right to do homage to their hero?”

“Ah, me!” Angelo rubbed his eyes. “This is a very strange world.”

In the end he departed with a heavy sack of nickels and pennies, while
the crowd shouted their approval of the “brave little Dago.” And for
once Angelo did not hate this name they had given his people.

They had gone another block before Angelo spoke again. What he said both
puzzled and troubled the little French girl. “That whole affair,” he
said quietly, “was a _faux pas_.”

“How could it be!” she exclaimed. “I thought it quite wonderful. What
right have those big, bluffing bullies to run down poor people on
Maxwell Street?”

“None at all,” Angelo replied soberly. “But after all, the battle of
Maxwell Street is not our battle. This is a large city. Yet it is
strange the way we meet the same people again and again. If that man
really comes upon me in some other place, if he finds out what I do and
where I live, he will do his best to ruin me. That is the way of his
kind.”

Little did Angelo guess the manner in which his prophecy was to come
true, much less the manner of vengeance that would be employed.

Petite Jeanne remained silent for a moment. Then she gave Angelo’s arm
an affectionate squeeze as she answered: “I shall pray every night that
he may never see you even once again.”

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