The McAllister Street cable-car, packed to its last inch, throbbed upon its way so jerkily that Susan, who was wedged in close to the glass shield at the front of the car, had sometimes to cling to the seat with knees and finger-tips to keep from sliding against her neighbor, a young man deep in a trade-journal, and sometimes to brace herself to withstand his helpless sliding against her. They both laughed presently at the absurdity of it.
“My, don’t they jerk!” said the friendly Susan, and the young man agreed fervently, in a bashful mumble, “It’s fierce, all right,” and returned to his book. Susan, when she got down at her corner, gave him a little nod and smile, and he lifted his hat, and smiled brightly in return.
There was a little bakery on this corner, with two gaslights flaring in its window. Several flat pies and small cakes were displayed there, and a limp curtain, on a string, shut off the shop, where a dozen people were waiting now. A bell in the door rang violently, whenever anyone came out or in. Susan knew the bakery well, knew when the rolls were hot, and just the price and variety of the cookies and the pies.
She knew, indeed, every inch of the block, a dreary block at best, perhaps especially dreary in this gloomy pitiless summer twilight. It was lined with shabby, bay-windowed, three-story wooden houses, all exactly alike. Each had a flight of wooden steps running up to the second floor, a basement entrance under the steps, and a small cemented yard, where papers and chaff and orange peels gathered, and grass languished and died. The dining-room of each house was in the basement, and slatternly maids, all along the block, could be seen setting tables, by flaring gas-light, inside. Even the Nottingham lace curtains at the second-story windows seemed akin, although they varied from the stiff, immaculate, well-darned lengths that adorned the rooms where the Clemenceaus—grandmother, daughter and granddaughter, and direct descendants of the Comte de Moran—were genteelly starving to death, to the soft, filthy, torn strips that finished off the parlor of the noisy, cheerful, irrepressible Daleys’ once-pretentious home. Poverty walked visibly upon this block, the cold, forbidding poverty of pride and courage gone wrong, the idle, decorous, helpless poverty of fallen gentility. Poverty spoke through the unobtrusive little signs over every bell, “Rooms,” and through the larger signs that said “Costello. Modes and Children’s Dressmaker.” Still another sign in a second-story bay said “Alice. Milliner,” and a few hats, dimly discernible from the street, bore out the claim.
Upon the house where Susan Brown lived with her aunt, and her aunt’s three daughters, there was no sign, although Mrs. Lancaster, and Mary Lou, Virginia and Georgianna had supported themselves for many years by the cheerless process known as taking boarders. Sometimes, when the Lancasters were in especially trying financial straits, the possibility of a little sign was discussed. But so far, the humiliating extreme had been somehow avoided.