On Babies' Row

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On Babies' Row.

By Anne O'Hagan


I.

In the season when the great houses are occupied, when silk and lace hangings flutter behind their long windows, when awnings from the doors to the carriage steps are a daily sight, and the cream-colored calves of motionless footmen seem carved along the curb, then Babies' Row has its period of pride. The most magnificent nursemaids of Murray Hill pace its sunny stretch, rejoicing in the breadth of the avenue, which does not know shadow on its east side until the sun is entirely gone, rejoicing in its quiet, for only a subdued murmur comes from the tunnel beneath, where the cars run.

The first time that Teddy's wanderings brought him so far toward the west, he was greatly impressed with Babies' Row. Its quiet, its sunshine, its little park like patches above the subway, the smiling grandeur of its houses, the gaiety ..of its afternoon parade, all appealed to him deeply. And Teddy was a connoisseur in the matter of babies' requirements. He had not been caretaker-in-chief to three younger brothers and sisters without a code of practise which had at least the merit of being the result of experience.

Shortly after his discovery of this paradisiacal spot, Teddy came lumbering over to the avenue one afternoon with the youngest baby in his arms. The youngest baby was the only one remaining of the infant brood of Quinlans. The others had not thriven in the air of the tenement. Teddy had bewailed their loss as if they were not the despots of his life. He was eleven now, and ever since he was four he had been "minding baby," while his mother went out to clean and his father indiscriminately labored, drank, or retired to "the island" at the behest of justice. But though his days had been spent in bondage to the "kids," he seldom realized his slavery. His affections twined around the poor little pasty lumps of humanity who fluttered and piteously cried themselves into dirty, toddling, crawling childhood, and then fluttered and piteously cried themselves out of the unlovely world.

Teddy's visit to Babies' Row was disconcerting. The crisp nurses had laughed shrilly at him. except the superior "graduated" ones who rolled their charges swiftly out of the way of possible contagion. The children who were old enough to stalk by their guardians' sides, brave visions in fur tippets and quilted hoods, in reefers of amazing shortness and leggings of amazing length, showed a spirit partly friendly, partly inquisitive, toward the small boy with the chapped, cracked hands, the frosty little face, and the big bundle of dingy clothing out of which a baby's face appeared. But altogether his reception had not encouraged Teddy to repeat his excursion.

To-day, however, the memory of the place was strong upon him. He had just come home from his mother's funeral. The stifling drive from the Long Island cemetery had made his head ache. His father had been maudlinly affectionate, alternately weeping and drinking from a bottle. His aunt had volubly bewailed the fact that "she had so many of her own that she couldn't take the childer home wid her"; and there had been talk of asylums. Teddy had sat in the black gloom of the carriage, not crying, for all his tears were exhausted, too faint even to glory in the unwonted importance and magnificence of his position.

At home they had all sat awhile in the neat kitchen—cleaned by the neighbors during their absence. Then gradually the group of mourners had melted away. The elder Quinlan had stumbled out of the house. The baby had cried fretfully on the bed; the heat had throbbed, and the summer roar and the summer stench had come in through the open windows and the open doors. Then Teddy had bethought himself of Babies' Row, its amplitude and quiet.

When finally he and the baby arrived, Teddy was surprised at the desertion of the block. The sun beat upon the asphalt, the summer dust blew in swirls through the wide street. Not a nursery maid walked upon it; there was no perambulator, nor baby, in all its length. The brown-stone houses presented closed and forbidding fronts.

It was none too cool, even on the shady side of the street. Teddy, drowsy from grief, from the noise and sleeplessness of a two nights' wake, from heat and the languor of long ill-nourishment, nodded over the baby, who sucked a sugar bug and occasionally varied the humming monotony of the summer silence with a cry. Then patient Ted would arouse himself, dandle the infant into peace again, and once more doze.

In one of his more wakeful spells, his eyes traveled along the row and took dull note of the entrances to the areaways. That of a house two doors beyond him was certainly ajar. Teddy scanned the house itself; it was as uninhabited as the rest of the street. It occurred to him that within the basement entrance there would be more coolness than here on the steps; that there would be security from prying eyes and question, and that if sleep did claim him entirely, as it threatened to, he and the baby would he safe in that darker shelter. So he arose, shouldered his bundle, and staggered to the half open area door.

The Frelinghuysens' caretaker, spending a day with her niece at Fordham, was at that very moment remarking:

"I left everything safe an' tight as a fiddle, me dear, so if it should come up a storm I could spend the night here an' never give it a thought. Any way, there's alarms at all the back windows, an' where's the burglar would be ringin' the front door-bell with Keefe special watchman for the block? Yes, Mollie, a glass of lemonade I could relish."

Teddy had closed the wooden door upon himself by this time, had fastened the iron grille, and had converted the mat into a crib for his charge. Then he himself stretched out, and in the dim, sunless corner fell profoundly asleep.


II.

It was eight o'clock when Robert Frelinghuysen ascended the stops to his front door. He had dined at the club, where he had also ordered a room on his arrival in town. But the club was by no means deserted; he had met half a dozen men whom he knew in the two hours he had been there, and it had suddenly occurred to him to go to his own house in search of the seclusion he had come to New York to find, away from that noisy house-party at the Farms. His front door was not boarded, and he entered easily. He closed it after him, and went up stairs to the library. He opened the windows, and sat near them. There was no light in the room; he could think better in the darkness.

Marcelle wanted to leave him. They had been married twelve years, and she wanted to leave him! He could not altogether blame her. Did they have an idea in common? How many they had thought they had, how many tastes, ideas! Well, that had been a mistake. He didn't care for her poets and her music and her esthetics and her preciosity generally. And she—how she loathed his racing and his dogs and his friends! It had been one of his friendships that had started the dissension, years ago—his liking for that little Winters woman, the best horse-woman, the best shot—and yes, she could tell a smoking-room story, too, an expurgated one, of course, but still——

And Marcelle had set up a poet as a retaliatory measure—a little bounder, he called the fellow; but a lot of women had gone a bit daffy over him. And then the boy was born, and there was a reconciliation, and the weeks that followed had been the happiest of his life. And then——

He groaned in the darkness. It had been hideous, as Marcelle said. It was better for them to separate than to squabble any longer, better to part before hatred had utterly poisoned their lives. The thing to do was to make as decent ami dignified a thing of the situation as possible, to separate with as little scandal. Perhaps Marcelle would want to marry again some time—she was only thirty-four, and a mighty fine-looking girl——

"Well, I'm hanged if she shall!" he cried in sudden fury.

Then he fought down the devil of anticipatory jealousy that surged through him hotly. Why should he deny her any freedom she might wish to claim?

It seemed to him that he heard a creaking board in the room below. To he sure—there was a caretaker on the premises. He must see the old woman before long, and unearth some of the comforts of home in the shape of sheets. But what on earth was that squalling? How long had it been piercing his ears? He felt suddenly that for quite half an hour a baby's lusty yells had been knocking against his ears for recognition. The caretaker hadn't a baby, had she? And this outcry seemed to come from the street.

He looked out of the window. The street lay almost deserted in the white light of the electric bulbs. At a distant corner he saw a policeman standing. To the north, the glitter of the great station flashed upon the night. And from the bowels of the earth beneath him came those frightened, iron-lunged yells.

"Confound the woman!" he said. "That infernal uproar is in the front of this house. She was Marcelle's old nurse—she can't have a baby. Perhaps she's running a hoarding house!"

The screams demanded investigation, and he started downward. It seemed to him that the stairs ahead of him creaked in the darkness, that there was a swish of skirts upon them. The old woman, probably, going to choke the baby, as it so richly deserved. He followed the faint sounds of the feminine advance, and they and the crying of the child brought him to the area-way.

He struck a match in the front hall of the basement. The electricity was not on, he remembered. He lit a gas-jet, and caught the gleam of a silk skirt vanishing into the roaring beyond the door.

Teddy, shut in, was shouting for help; the baby was bellowing; and a woman, young and good-looking, was pleading as she fumbled with the locks and catches:

"Oh, hush, children, hush, and we'll all get out safely. Sh—oh, he's coming!"

"He won't hurt you," Teddy gravely began to assure her.

Then she screamed, but there was no more fear in her cry.

"Marcelle!" said the man.

"Oh, Bob, to think of it's being you all the time! I thought I smelled cigar-smoke the minute I went in at the front door. And I was afraid to stir out of the reception room. I've been sitting at the window, waiting for help to pass—a policeman or some one I could call in!"

"What are you doing in town?"

"I wanted to think—here at home. I couldn't with that noisy crowd around us at the Farms."

"It's a quiet place we've chosen for thought," laughed her husband, for the baby continued its cries, and Teddy ceaselessly droned an explanation.

Somehow they all came in again. Somehow Teddy induced them to listen to his asseverations that he was doing no harm. Somehow his pinched, old, little face spoke more eloquently than he; and somehow the baby, the soiled baby drinking the caretaker's milk in greedy gulps from the spoon Marcelle held to its lips, told a moving tale.

"Do you know what I'm thinking, Bob?" she began suddenly. "I'm thinking we forgot our boy!"

"That was what I was thinking, Marcelle," Robert answered soberly. "Somehow this——" He waved his hand vaguely toward his guests, and his voice broke. He had small gift of words.

"I know," said the more fluent Marcelle. "You mean——"

Then her voice broke, too, and she hid her eyes against the baby's dirty cape.

"We've been pretending life's all skittles," Bob interpreted laboriously. "And it ain't. It's—this. If we came down to realities, Marcie, maybe——"

And then Teddy interrupted Marcelle's embrace of her spouse with a warning:

"Look out, ma'am, you'll drop baby!"


III.

Among the persons who have never been heard to criticize Mrs. Robert Frelinghuysen's sudden entrance into a small philanthropy of her own are Ted and his brother. Mr. Quinlan, however, weeps in his cups over the black crime of which she was guilty in "breakin' up a happy home an' settin' a son against a father."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.