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By Grace Livingston Hill
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Grace Livingston Hill
All rights reserved.
The room was cold. Phyllis shivered as she took her hands out of the dishwater to reach for a pile of plates that stood on the inadequate little table behind her. The table was inadequate because there wasn't room for a larger one. Everything in the tiny dark hole that passed for a kitchenette was cramped. One had to turn around carefully lest something be knocked over.
Phyllis tossed her head to get the refractory lock of hair out of her eyes and, failing, pushed it back with her elbow then shivered again. The apartment was supposed to have heat in it, but the radiators had been stone cold all day, and when she tapped on the door of the landlady's room down the hall there was no answer, although Phyllis was sure she was there. She had heard her scolding her baby but a moment before. But, of course, that was because the rent wasn't paid. When Phyllis remembered that, she beat a hasty retreat back to her cold room. She had no desire to bring down upon her lonely young self a tirade such as her mother had had to endure the evening before, just because she had told the old skinflint that she would not be able to pay the rent for another week.
Unbidden, a great hot tear rolled down her white cheek and dropped into the dishwater.
The dishwater was cold, too. Phyllis had tried to heat some water because the dishes were greasy, leftover from last night to save heating dishwater twice. But the gas had flickered and gone out under the kettle before it was more than lukewarm, and Phyllis had not another quarter to put into the meter to start it again. That meter was always eating up quarters. This cold dishwater in the cold room with the greasy dishes seemed just the last straw, and another tear followed the first one.
But Phyllis Challenger was not a crying person, and with the upper part of her sleeve she wiped her eyes defiantly and applied a little more soap to the greasy plate she was washing, setting her lips firmly. Things did look pretty bleak, but she was not going to let a mere greasy plate in a cold room conquer her. Mother had enough to worry her now without having anyone of her family give way to weakness. If they were all going to starve to death, she resolved that at least she, Phyllis, would die smiling.
When the dishes were done and the clammy towels hung up to dry, she scrubbed away at the ugly sink with a worn old sink brush.
"How I hate you!" she said aloud to the rusty iron sink that the landlady had bought for fifty cents from a junk man when she bungled her rickety old dwelling over into a so-called "apartment" house.
She washed her hands in clear cold water from the spigot many times. She must not waste the soap for mere hands. Thank goodness there wasn't any extra charge for water at least. Of course, there was a water meter in the house, but the landlady looked out for that. She took a good drink of water to still the empty feeling in her stomach and cast a wistful glance at the bread box. Nothing but half a loaf of Mother's homemade bread left. It had been hoarded carefully and was dry as could be, but it would soak in hot water, if she only had a quarter to start the gas with to heat the water. But dry as it was, how good a little piece of it would taste! Only, if she took a piece now and it should just happen that Mother was not able to get any money yet, perhaps this half loaf would be all they would have for the whole family for supper. She measured the loaf with her eye. Cut in thin slices, there was barely enough for a portion each: Mother, Bob, Melissa, and Rosalie. Lucky thing Stephen wasn't home, or it never could be made to go around.
Home! As if anybody could call this a home!
Phyllis slammed the bread box shut, took another drink of water, and went into the little front room, which was both living room and Bob's bedroom. The squalid apartment contained only one other room, a small bedroom, nearly full with its two beds, a bureau, and a dresser. They could just barely crowd around between the furniture. One had to sit on the side of the bed to open the drawers of the bureau. Phyllis and Mother slept in one of the beds and Melissa and Rosalie in the other. It was just like berths in a sleeper. Phyllis sighed. Would they ever go on nice long vacation journeys in a sleeper again? Would they ever have a car like other people and drive away to the shore for weekends and trips?
She went to the window and looked out on the dismal little street, sordid and grimy. It was a narrow street with rows of two-story brick houses facing one another across uneven old brick-paved sidewalks where on certain days one had to pick one's way between garbage pails and trash cans. Such a terrible place for a family of a college professor to have to live, even for a little while! Would Father ever get well and be able to come out of the hospital? Would he ever be able to get back to teaching and they all live in a respectable house again? Low down, that was what this was! Just plain low down and disgusting, like drunkards' homes. That was what Phyllis thought. Her experience in drunkards' homes had been limited, however. There really were worse streets than Slacker Street, even in that city.
She continued to gaze out of the window, hoping against hope that she would see her mother coming. It had begun to rain, steadily, drearily, which only seemed to accentuate the coldness of the room. The windowpanes had diagonal trickles like tears so that it was hard to see out, but the girl continued to press her cheek against the pane and gaze wistfully up the street. If Mother would only come and bring some good news, somehow!
There were patches of dirty snow in the gutter here and there, and across the road in the narrow passage between two houses, one of which was unoccupied, a drift of snow was banked untidily against the two walls where no one had passed in and out since the winter months.
A gaunt gray cat streaked warily across the road and disappeared down the alley. A little wet mongrel dog hurried down the sidewalk as if on some special errand. A woman under a bent cotton umbrella with a large basket on her arm walked painfully by on the opposite side. She was lame, and she was wearing a man's shoes, which were too large for her. She made slow progress. Her long untidy skirts sloshed drearily about her ankles, drabbling into every puddle she passed. What a sordid thing life was! Tears threatened again, and Phyllis turned with a shiver back to the dreary room, casting an anxious eye about. If she only could do something to make it look a little more cheerful when Mother came back. She would be wet and tired and cold. How wonderful it would be if they could have a fire, an open fire! But the high wooden mantelpiece only sheltered an inadequate little old-fashioned register up which nothing was coming now but cold air. The landlady had gone out for the afternoon evidently, and the fire must have gone out, too.
Phyllis went and put on her old sweater, then she opened the hall door cautiously and listened. There was no sound anywhere, neither baby nor landlady. An odd time to take a baby out in a rain like this, but either that or they were both asleep, which was not likely at this hour of the day. Dared she?
She tiptoed to the woman's door and listened, tapped softly again and listened, but there was no sound save the noise of the landlady's little dog thumping his tail in a friendly way on the floor, whining gently. Yes, they surely were gone and had left the dog in the house to guard it.
Phyllis had never been in the cellar. It was not a part of their province. But she was going now. Love for her mother gave her courage.
With a defiant look toward the closed door of the householder, she grasped the knob of the cellar door and opened it cautiously, looking down into the forbidding shadows below the steep winding stair.
Cautiously, she ventured down a step or two and peered again. There seemed to be no place to turn on a light. Perhaps a gas jet somewhere, but how was she to find out its location? Could she do anything in the cellar without a light? She remembered a short candle and hurried back to her kitchen for it, a little anxious about having to use it. She must save even a candle and a match if possible. How terrible life was! There were only nine matches left. She had counted them this morning; but she must use one to light the candle, for she could not do a thing to a strange furnace in the dark. Perhaps she could not anyway. She had never made a furnace fire in her life. She had never had to. But now she had to; and what one had to, one always could do, she firmly believed.
With her candle casting flickering shadows before her, she descended at last into that awful cellar. One dismayed glance she cast about her at the dirt and disorder and then walked straight over to the grim rusty object that must be the furnace.
The door stuck, and she had hard work to get it open, but after much tugging, it gave way and revealed a dark cavern inside with just a spunk of fire winking as if it were about to expire. No wonder the house had been cold! And that woman had taken her baby and gone out and left the house cold on purpose! That was probably the truth. She had done it because Mother had not been able to pay last month's rent last night when she had promised!
Phyllis's cheeks burned hotly even while she shivered. To think that they, the Challengers, had come to this, to have a common lodging-housekeeper punish them because they could not pay the rent on time. But, of course, reasoned the honest child, even through her indignation, the woman perhaps needed the money, and it was right that she should be paid. Oh, the shame of being in a position like this, they who had always had plenty and to spare for others!
But there was no time to philosophize. This fire must be made. Even if she had to break up some of the furniture to make it, the room must be warm when Mother came home! And besides, she must hurry. No telling what Mrs. Barkus would do to her when she returned if she found out she was daring to enter the sacred precincts of the cellar and make a fire in her absence.
She held the candle high and looked around. There were some old newspapers piled in one corner, but they looked damp, for there was water on the floor of the cellar. No wonder such a musty smell came up the register!
There were a few old boxes and crates scattered untidily around, and a rusty ax lay on the floor. Dared she?
She put the candle carefully down on the floor and lifted the ax gingerly. She approached a box and brought the ax down on it with a crash and exulted in the splintering ruin that ensued. The box didn't look very substantial. It was perhaps an orange or peach crate, but the splinters would be just the thing to catch fire from that spunk of brightness just winking out. She laid down the ax and gathered a handful of splinters, stuck them carefully down into the fire, and was heartened to see them catch and blaze up. She applied a few more and had a neat little blaze going. It was interesting coaxing a fire into being, but how fast it ate up the fuel! She seized the ax and attacked a heavier box, finding it not so easy to break up.
While she worked, she wondered what Mrs. Barkus or her grouchy husband would say when they found their kindling wood all gone. Could they arrest her for a thing like that when she was cold? When--but, of course, their rent wasn't paid. Still, it was only a month behind. Well, she would get a job and pay for the kindling wood herself.
But her heart sank as she remembered how she had spent her whole morning until two o'clock trying to find a job and had stopped only because she had come to the end of the advertisements she had cut out of the paper that morning. It wasn't easy in these hard times for a girl to find a job, especially a girl who had never been trained for a job.
But she had never been trained for a fireman, that was certain, and she found it a backbreaking job before she finally got a good blaze, juggled with the strange dampers and doors, and got the coal to catch with a little licking blue flame that promised smartly to accomplish some real heat pretty soon. But at last she closed the cellar door on her efforts, extinguished her candle, and went upstairs just in time, for she heard the front door key rattling in the lock as she turned away from the cellar door, and she had to beat a hasty retreat to get inside her own room before the door opened.
It was not Mrs. Barkus as she had feared, but her own sister, Melissa, looking pale and tired and pretty, and carrying a dripping umbrella.
Phyllis had retreated to the kitchenette and was entrenched behind the table when Melissa entered, bearing the umbrella to the sink.
"Mercy!" said Melissa crossly. "What's the matter? What have you been doing? You've got a smudge all across your nose and cheeks, and you look as if you expected an army with banners."
"I did," laughed Phyllis with relief. "I thought you were Barkus the Belligerent, and I was about to defend myself with the iron spoon."
"But what have you been doing, Phyl, that you should have to defend yourself? She hasn't dared to come down on you for the rent, has she?"
"Not yet," said Phyllis solemnly, "but she may. When she finds out what I've been doing, she may turn us out of the house before night. Or worse than that perhaps. She may have us all arrested. Lissie, do they ever arrest people for making fires in other people's furnaces?" she asked with mock solemnity.
"Oh, Phyl, you haven't been making a fire! How did you dare? Does she know? A fire! How heavenly! I'm frozen to the bone. I didn't know it was so cold, or I'd have worn my old sweater under my coat, but I did want to make a good impression!"
Phyllis cast a quick anxious look into her sister's face and saw the sudden overshadowing of trouble as she spoke.
"Did you get the job, Lissa? You didn't! Oh, Lissa!"
"Of course not!" said Melissa crossly, stumbling over the rocker of Rosalie's small chair. "You didn't expect I would, did you? I told you not to expect anything. I thought you'd just go and do that thing, be disappointed! That's why I hated to go. It's almost worse than getting turned down to have to come home and tell it."
"Oh, Lissie, dear! I didn't mean to seem disappointed. I really am only disappointed for you because I saw you were counting on it so."
"I wasn't counting on it!" snapped Melissa. "I'm not fool enough to count on anything anymore. Somebody's got it in for us, that's what. I guess God wants to destroy us the way He did some of those old fiends in the Old Testament."
"Don't, Lissie! Don't talk that way. You know that's not true. That's not like you. You're a good little sport!"
"Sport nothing!" glowered Melissa. "I mean it. Somebody has. It couldn't be just happening, all this to come to one perfectly good, respectable family!"
Phyllis shuddered involuntarily at the hard tone her sister used.
"But don't, Lissie," she pleaded again, following her sister into the living room. "It only makes it worse to take it that way. Tell me about it. What was the matter? I didn't see how you could possibly fail with that wonderful letter from the provost, and Miss Waring the librarian being an old friend of Mother's."
"Oh, friends!" sneered Melissa, taking off her beret and shaking the drops from it into the sink. "Now look! I've got my only good hat wet, and all for nothing."
"But what was the matter, Liss, didn't you even see her? Didn't she read the letter?"
"Oh, yes, I saw her, after waiting hours. She was in some kind of conference. She read the letter of course, and smiled her sweetest, and said she was so sorry but they had about decided on an assistant librarian. And then she looked at me as if I were some kind of merchandise she was rejecting. 'And anyway, are you through college, my dear?' And when I told her no, I had had only one year, she shook her head and said, 'Well, that would settle it. We're giving the preference to college graduates now. You know almost every young girl goes to college nowadays.' As if I were staying away from college to play Parcheesi!"
Suddenly Melissa sank into the one big overstuffed chair that the room contained and, putting her head down on the worn old arm, broke into heartbreaking sobs that shook her slender shoulders.
Phyllis was on her knees beside her in a moment with an arm about her shaking shoulders.
"There, Lissie dear, don't cry. There's probably something a lot better for you. Don't feel so bad, dear."
Excerpted from The Challengers by Grace Livingston Hill. Copyright © 2016 Grace Livingston Hill. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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