Read CHAPTER VI. of The House in Town , free online book, by Susan Warner, on ReadCentral.com.

The second of December rose keen and clear, like the first; but inside Matilda’s room there was a state of pleasant summer temperature; she could hardly understand that it was cold enough outside to make the pretty frosting on her window panes which hindered the view.  She dressed in royal comfort, and in a delightful stir of expectation and hope.  It was really New York; and she was going to Stewart’s to-day.  The cold would not bite her as it used to do in Shadywalk, for they would be in a carriage.

When she was dressed she contrived to clear a loophole in her frosted window, and looked out.  The sun shone on a long, clean, handsome street, lined with houses that looked as if all New York were made of money.  Brick and stone fronts rose to stately heights, as far as her eye could see; windows were filled with beautiful large panes of glass, like her own window, and lace and drapery behind them testified to the inside adorning and beautifying.  There could not be any one living in all that street who was not rich; nothing but plenty and ease could possibly be behind such house-fronts.  Then Matilda saw an omnibus going down the street; but her breath dimmed her look-out place and she had to give it up for that time.  It was her hour for reading and praying.  Matilda was a little inclined to shrink from it, fearing lest she might come upon some other passage that would give her trouble.  She thought, for this morning, she would turn to a familiar chapter, which she had read many a time, and where she had never found anything to confuse her.  She began the fifth of Matthew.  But she had read only fifteen verses, and she came to this.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

If a ray of the very sunshine, pointed and tipped with fire like a spear, so that it could prick her, had come in through the frosting on the window pane and smote upon Matilda’s face, she would not more keenly have felt the touch.  It had never touched her before, that verse, with anything but rose leaf softness; now it pricked.  Why?  The little girl was troubled; and leaning her elbows on the table and her head in her hands, she began to think.  And then she began to pray.  “Let your light shine.”  The light must burn if it was to shine; that was one thing; and she must let no screen come between the light and those who should see it.  Fear must not come there, nor shame, to hide or cover the light.  And the light itself must be bright.  Nobody would see a dim shining.  By and by, as she pondered and prayed, with her head in her hands, this word and last night’s word joined themselves together; and she began to see, that “minding earthly things” would act to hide the light first, and then to put it out.  So far she got; but the battle was only set in array; it was not fought nor gained, when she was called down to breakfast.

The rest of the family were all seated at the table before the two boys came in.

“Pink,” Norton burst forth, as soon as he had said good morning, “we must get there at feeding time!”

“Here you are!” ­said David waggishly; and Matilda looking up, saw Judith’s black eyes all on fire and a flash of the same fun in her brother’s face.  Those proud eyes could sparkle, then.  Her look passed to Norton.  But he was as cool as usual.

“Mamma,” he said, “I am going to take Pink this morning to the Menagerie.”

“You had better wait till she has something to wear, Norton.”

“When will that be, ma’am?  It won’t take long will it?”

“I do not know.”

“Mamma, Pink does not care, and I do not care.  She has never seen a live lion in her life; and it will not make any difference with the lions.  I guess she will keep warm.  I want to be there at twelve o’clock; or I want to be there before.  They feed the animals at twelve o’clock, and they’re all alive.”

“We feed the animals here at one o’clock,” said his grandmother.  “I hope you will remember that.”

“Do you want to go, Matilda?” Mrs. Laval asked.

“She has never seen a lion,” repeated Norton.

“Somebody else has never seen a monkey,” said Judith.

“That is somebody who don’t live in the house with Judy Bartholomew,” Norton returned.

“We don’t want to see a bear, either,” said Miss Judy pouting.

“Well, remember and be at home for luncheon,” said Mrs. Laval.  “I want Matilda after that.”

The breakfast went on now delightfully.  Matilda sometimes lifted her eyes to look at her opposite neighbours; they had a fascination for her.  Judith was such a sprite of mischief, to judge from her looks; and David was so utterly unlike Norton.  Norton was always acute and frank, outspoken when he had a mind, fearless and careless at all times.  Fearless David might be, but not careless, unless his face belied him; he did not look as if it were often his pleasure to be outspoken, or to shew what he was thinking of.  And that was the oddest of all, that he did not seem lighthearted.  Matilda fancied he was proud; she was sure that he was reserved.  In the family gatherings he was seen but not heard; and she thought he did not care much for what was going on.  Nothing escaped Judy’s ears or eyes; and nothing was serious with her which she could turn into fun.  Her eyes gave a funny snap now and then when they met Matilda’s eyes across the table, as if she had her own thoughts about Matilda and knew half of Matilda’s thoughts about her.  Matilda hoped she would not take it into her head to go to the Menagerie.

“Norton, I believe I’ll go too,” said Judith the next minute.

“Where?” said Norton.

“To the Menagerie.  Where should I go?”

“All right,” said Norton.  “But if you are going to do me the honour to go with me, you must wait till I have brought Matilda back.  I can’t take care of both of you.”

“I don’t want you to take care of me,” said Judy.

“I know that.  But I am going to take care of Matilda.”

“Why cannot you take care of both of them?” his grandmother asked, interrupting Judith.

“Make Judith tell first why she wants to go, grandmamma.  She has been lots of times.”

“Grandmamma,” said Judy with her eyes snapping, “I want to see a new sort of wild animal, just come, and to see how it will look at the tigers.”

They all laughed, but Mrs. Laval put her arm round Matilda and stooped down and kissed her.

“Judith is a wild animal herself, isn’t she, dear?  She is a sort of little wild-cat.  But she has soft paws; they don’t scratch.”

Matilda was not quite so sure of this.  However, when they left the table Judith set about gaining her point in earnest; but Norton was not to be won over.  He was going with Matilda alone, he said, the first time; and so he did.

It was all enjoyment then, as soon as Matilda and Norton left the house together.  Matilda was in a new world.  Her eyes were busy making observations everywhere.

“How beautiful the houses are, Norton,” she said, when they had gone a block or two.  “There are not many poor people in New York, are there?”

“Well, occasionally you see one,” said Norton.

“I don’t see anything that looks like one.  Norton, why do they have the middle of the street covered with those round stones?  They make such a racket when the carts and carriages go over them.  It is very disagreeable.”

“Is it?” said Norton.  “You won’t hear it after you have been here a little while.”

“Not hear it?  But why do they have it so, Norton?”

“Why Pink, just think of the dust we should have, and the mud, if it was all like Shadywalk, and these thousands of wheels cutting into it all the time.”

Matilda was silenced.  One difference brings on another, she was learning to find out.  But now Norton hailed a street car and they got into it.  The warmth of the car was very pleasant after the keen wind in the streets.  And here also the people who filled it, though most of them certainly not rich people, and many very far from that, yet looked to a certain degree comfortable.  But just as Norton and Matilda got out, and were about to enter the building, where an enormous painted canvass with a large brown lion upon it told that the Menagerie was to be seen, Matilda stopped short.  A little ragged boy, about as old as herself, offered her a handful of black round-headed pins.  What did he mean?  Matilda looked at him, and at the pins.

“Come on,” cried Norton.  “What is that? ­No, we don’t want any of your goods just now; at least I don’t.  Come in, Pink.  You need not stop to speak to everybody that stops to speak to you.”

“What did he want, Norton? that boy.”

“Wanted to sell hairpins.  Didn’t you see?”

Matilda cast a look back at the sideway, where the boy was trying another passenger for custom; but Norton drew her on, and the boy was forgotten in some extraordinary noises she heard; she had heard them as soon as she entered the door; strange, mingled noises, going up and down a scale of somewhat powerful, unearthly notes.  She asked Norton what they were?

“The lions, Pink,” said Norton, with intense satisfaction.  “The lions, and the rest of the company.  Come ­here they are.”

And having paid his fee, he pushed open a swinging baize door, and they entered a very long room or gallery, where the sounds became to be sure very unmistakable.  They almost terrified Matilda.  So wildly were mingled growls and cries and low roarings, all in one restless, confused murmur.  The next minute she all but forgot the noise.  She was looking at two superb Bengal tigers, a male and a female, in one large cage.  They were truly superb.  Large and lithe, magnificent in port and action, beautiful in the colour and marking of their smooth hides.  But restless?  That is no word strong enough to fit the ceaseless impatient movement with which the male tiger went from one corner of his iron cage to the other corner, and back again; changing constantly only to renew the change.  One bound in his native jungle would have carried him over many times the space, which now he paced eagerly or angrily with a few confined steps.  The tigress meanwhile knew his mood and her wisdom so well that she took care never to be in his way; and as the cage was not large enough to allow her mate to turn round in the corner where she stood, she regularly took a flying leap over his back whenever he came near that corner.  Again and again and again, the one lordly creature trod from end to end the floor of his prison; and every time, like a feather, so lightly and gracefully, the huge powerful form of the other floated over his back and alighted in the other corner.

“Do they keep doing that all the time!” said Matilda, when she had stood spell-bound before the cage for some minutes.

“It’s near feeding time,” said Norton.  “I suppose they know it and it makes them worry.  Or else know they are hungry; which answers just as well.”

“Poor creatures!” said Matilda.  “If that tiger could break his cage, now, how far do you think he could jump, Norton?”

“I don’t know,” said Norton.  “As far as to you or me, I guess.  Or else over all our heads, to get at that coloured woman.”

The woman was sweeping the floor, a little way behind the two talkers, and heard them.  “Yes!” she said, “he’d want me fust thing, sure.”

“Why?” whispered Matilda.

“Likes the dark meat best,” said Norton.  “Fact, Pink; they say they do.”

Matilda gazed with a new fascination on the beautiful, terrible creatures.  Could it be possible, that those very animals had actually tasted “dark meat” at home?

“Yes,” said Norton; “there are hundreds of the natives carried off and eaten by the tigers, I heard a gentleman telling mother, every year, in the province of Bengal alone.  Come, Pink; we can look at these fellows again; I want you to see some of the others before they are fed.”

They went on, with less delay, till they came to the Russian bear.  At the great blocks of ice in his cage Matilda marvelled.

“Is he so warm!” she said.  “In this weather?”

“This room’s pretty comfortable,” said Norton; “and to him I suppose it’s as bad as a hundred and fifty degrees of the thermometer would be to us.  He’s accustomed to fifty degrees below zero.”

“I don’t know what ‘below zero’ means, exactly,” said Matilda.  “But then those great pieces of ice cannot do him much good?”

“Not much,” said Norton.

“And he must be miserable,” said Matilda; “just that we may look at him.”

“Do you wish he was back again where he came from?” said Norton; “all comfortable, with ice at his back and ice under his feet; where we couldn’t see him?”

“But Norton, isn’t it cruel?”

“Isn’t what cruel?”

“To have him here, just for our pleasure?  I am very glad to see him, of course.”

“I thought you were,” said Norton.  “Why I suppose we cannot have anything, Pink, without somebody being uncomfortable for it, somewhere.  I am very often uncomfortable myself.”

Matilda was inclined to laugh at him; but there was no time.  She had come face to face with the lions.  Except for those low strange roars, they did not impress her as much as their neighbours from Bengal.  But she studied them, carefully enough to please Norton, who was making a very delight to himself, and a great study, of her pleasure.

Further on, Matilda was brought to a long stand again before the wolf’s cage.  It was a small cage, so small that in turning round he rubbed his nose against the wall at each end; for the ends were boarded up; and the creature did nothing but turn round.  At each end of the cage there was a regular spot on the boards, made by his nose as he lifted it a little to get round the more easily, and yet not enough to avoid touching.  Yet he went round and round, restlessly, without stopping for more than an instant at a time.

“Poor fellow, poor fellow!” was again Matilda’s outcry.  “He keeps doing that all the time, Norton; see the places where his nose rubs.”

“Don’t say ‘poor fellow’ about a wolf,” said Norton.

“Why not?  He is only an animal.”

“He is a wicked animal.”

“Why Norton, he don’t know any better than to be wicked.  Do you think some animals are really worse than others?”

“I’m certain of it,” said Norton.

“But they only do what it is their nature to do.”

“Yes, and different animals have different natures.  Now look at that wolf’s eyes; see what cruel, sly, bad eyes they are.  Think what beautiful eyes a horse has; a good horse.”

“And sheep have beautiful eyes,” said Matilda.

“And pigs have little, ugly, dirty eyes; mean and wicked too.  You need not laugh; it is true.”

“I don’t know how pigs’ eyes look,” said Matilda.  “But it is very curious.  For of course they do not know any better; so how should they be wicked?  Those tigers, they looked as if they hadn’t any heart at all.  Don’t you think a dog has a heart, Norton?”

Norton laughed, and pulled her on to a cage at a little distance from the wolf, where there were a party of monkeys.  And next door to them was a small ape in a cell alone.  Matilda forgot everything else here.  These creatures were so inimitably odd, sly and comical; had such an air of knowing what they were about, and expecting you to understand it too; looking at you as though they could take you into their confidence, if it were worth while; it was impossible to get away from them.  Norton had some nuts in his pocket; with these he and the monkeys made great game; while the little ape raked in the straw litter of his cage to find any stray seeds or bits of food which might have sifted down through it to the floor, managing his long hand-like paw as gracefully as the most elegant lady could move her dainty fingers.  Matilda and Norton staid with the monkeys, till the feeding hour had arrived; then Norton hurried back to the tigers.  A man was coming the rounds with a basket full of great joints of raw meat; and it was notable to see how carefully he had to manage to let the tiger have his piece before the tigress got hers.  He watched and waited, till he got a chance to thrust the meat into the cage at the end where the tiger’s paw would the next instant be.

“Why?” Matilda asked Norton.

“There’d be an awful fight, I guess, if he didn’t,” said Norton; “and that other creature would stand a chance to get whipped; and her coat would be scratched; that’s all the man cares for.”

“And is that the reason the tigress keeps out of the tiger’s way so?”

“Of course.  Some people would say, I suppose, that she was amiable.”

“I never should, to look in her face,” said Matilda laughing.  “Tigers certainly are wicked.  But, they do not know any better.  How can it be wickedness?”

“Now come, Pink,” said Norton; “we have got to be home by one, you know, and there’s a fellow you haven’t seen yet; the hippopotamus.  We must go into another place to see him.”

He was by himself, in a separate room, as Norton had said, where a large tank was prepared and filled with water for his accommodation.  Matilda looked at him a long time in silence and with great attention.

“Do you know, Norton,” she said, “this is the behemoth the Bible speaks about?”

“I don’t know at all,” said Norton.  “How do you know?”

“Mr. Richmond says so; he says people have found out that it is so.  But he don’t seem to me very big, Norton, for that.”

The keeper explained, that the animal was a young one and but half grown.

“How tremendously ugly he is!” said Norton.

“And what a wonderful number of different animals there are in the world,” said Matilda.  “This is unlike anything I ever saw.  I wonder why there are such a number?”

“And so many of them not good for anything,” said Norton.

“Oh Norton, you can’t say that, you know.”

“Why not?  This fellow, for instance; what is he good for?”

“I don’t know; and you don’t know.  But that’s just it, Norton.  You don’t know.”

“Well, what are lions and tigers good for?” said Norton.  “I suppose we know about them.  What are they good for?”

“Why Norton, I can’t tell,” said Matilda.  “I would very much like to know.  But they must be good for something.”

“To eat up people, and make the places where they live a terror,” said Norton.

“I don’t know,” said Matilda, with a very puzzled look on her little face.  “It seems so strange, when you think of it.  And those great serpents, Norton, that live where the lions and tigers live; they are worse yet.”

“Little and big,” said Norton.  “I do despise a snake!”

“And crocodiles,” said Matilda.  “And wolves, and bears.  I wonder if the Bible tells anything about it.”

“The Bible don’t tell everything, Pink,” said Norton laughing.

“No, but I remember now what it does say,” said Matilda.  “It says that God saw everything that he had made, and it was very good.”

Norton looked with a funny look at his little companion, amused and yet with a kind of admiration mixed with his amusement.

“I wonder how you and David would get along,” he remarked.  “He is as touchy on that subject as you are.”

“What subject?” said Matilda.  “The Bible?”

“The Old Testament.  The Jewish Scriptures.  Not the New!  Don’t ever bring up the New Testament to him, Pink, unless you want stormy weather.”

“Is he bad-tempered?” Matilda asked curiously.

“He’s Jewish-tempered,” said Norton.  “He has his own way of looking at things, and he don’t like yours.  I mean, anybody’s but his own.  What a quantity it must take to feed this enormous creature!”

“You may take your affidavit of that!” said the keeper, who was an Irishman.  “Faith, I think he’s as bad as fifty men.”

“What do you give him?”

“Well, he belongs to the vegetable kingdom intirely, ye see, sir.”

“He’s a curious water-lily, isn’t he?” said Norton low to Matilda.  But that was more than either of them could stand, and they turned away and left the place to laugh.  It was time then, they found, to go home.

A car was not immediately in sight when they came out into the street, and Norton and Matilda walked a few blocks rather than stand still.  It had grown to be a very disagreeable day.  The weather was excessively cold, and a very strong wind had risen; which now went careering along the streets, catching up all the dust of them in turn, and before letting it drop again whirling it furiously against everybody in its way.  Matilda struggled along, but the dust came in thick clouds and filled her eyes and mouth and nose and lodged in all her garments.  It seemed to go through everything she had on, and with the dirt came the cold.  Shadywalk never saw anything like this!  As they were crossing one of the streets in their way, Matilda stopped short just before setting her foot on the curb-stone.  A little girl with a broom in her hand stood before her and held out her other hand for a penny.  The child was ragged, and her rags were of the colour of the dust which filled everything that day; hair and face and dress were all of one hue.

“Please, a penny,” she said, barring Matilda’s way.

“Norton, have you got a penny?” said Matilda bewildered.

“Nonsense!” said Norton, “we can’t be bothered to stop for all the street-sweepers we meet.  Come on, Pink.”  He seized Matilda’s hand, and she was drawn on, out of the little girl’s range, before she could stop to think about it.  Two streets further on, they crossed an avenue; and here Matilda saw two more children with brooms, a boy and a girl.  This time she saw what they were about.  They were sweeping the crossing clean for the feet of the passers-by.  But their own feet were bare on the stones.  The next minute Norton had hailed a car and he and Matilda got in.  Her eyes and mouth were so full of dust and she was so cold, it was a little while before she could ask questions comfortably.

“What are those children you wouldn’t let me speak to?” she said, as soon as she was a little recovered.

“Street-sweepers,” said Norton.  “Regular nuisances!  The police ought to take them up, and shut them up.”

“Why, Norton?”

“Why? why because they’re such a nuisance.  You can’t walk a half mile without having half a dozen of them holding out their hands for pennies.  A fellow can’t carry his pocket full of pennies and keep it full!”

“But they sweep the streets, don’t they?”

“The crossings; yes.  I wish they didn’t.  They are an everlasting bother.”

“But Norton, isn’t it nice to have the crossings swept?  I thought it was a great deal pleasanter than to have to go through the thick dust and dirt which was everywhere else.”

“Yes, but when they come every block or two?” said Norton.

“Are there so many of them?”

“There’s no end to them,” said Norton.

“But at any rate, there are just as many crossings,” said Matilda.  “And they must be either dirty or clean.”

“I can get along with the crossings,” said Norton.

“Well, your boots are thick.  Haven’t those children any way to get a living but such a way?”

“Of course not, or they wouldn’t do that, I suppose.”

“But their feet were bare, Norton; they were bare, on those cold dirty stones.”

“Dirt is nothing,” said Norton, buttoning up his great coat comfortably.  He had just loosened it to get at some change for the car fare.

“Dirt is nothing?” repeated Matilda looking at him.

“I mean, Pink,” said he laughing, “it is nothing to them.  They are as dirty as they can be already; a little more or less makes no difference.”

“I wonder if they are as cold as they can be, too,” said Matilda meditatively.

“No!” said Norton.  “Not they.  They are used to it.  They don’t feel it.”

“How can you tell, Norton?”

“I can tell.  I can see.  They are jolly enough sometimes; when they aren’t boring for cents.”

“But that little girl, Norton, ­all of them, ­they hadn’t much on!”

“No,” said Norton; “I suppose not.  It’s no use to look and think about it, Pink.  They are accustomed to it; it isn’t what it would be to you.  Don’t think about it.  You’ll be always seeing sights in New York.  The best way is not to see.”

But Matilda did think about it “Not what it would be to her”! why, it would kill her, very quickly.  Of course it must be not exactly so to these children, since they did not die; but what was it to them?  Not warmth and comfort; not a pleasant spending of time for pleasure.

“Norton,” she began again just as they were getting out of the car, “it seems to me that if those children sweep the streets, it is right to give them pay for it.  They are trying to earn something.”

“You can’t,” said Norton.  “There are too many of them.  You cannot be putting your hand in your pocket for pennies all the while, and stopping under the heels of the horses.  I do once in a while give them something.  You can’t be doing it always.”