I T was ash-barrel day in Barclay Street one pleasant morning in May, and every shop on the street had decorated the walk in front of its door with a barrel or box of rubbish ready for the "ashmen" to empty and carry away.
Long before the expected carts came lumbering around the corner there appeared on the scene a young girl. She was not very attractive: barefooted, ragged, and dirty; a shawl tied over her tangled black hair, and a hard, saucy look in her face. In her hand she carried a long iron, hooked at the end, and over her shoulder a coarse bag; the former she thrust into each barrel as she came to it, and anything she dragged up that could be sold she stuffed into the bag to carry away. In this way she had already collected half a bushel of old paper, rags, bones, bottles, and other stuff you would not consider of the least value.
She was well known on the street, for many a spruce clerk standing in the door spoke jeeringly to her, and none failed to get a sharp reply, with generally an ugly grimace, which always caused a coarse laugh and more talk. Bad-tempered, ready to "talk back," even to scratch and bite if interfered with, Val, the ash-barrel girl, seems a strange character for a story. But this isn't the end, you know, it's only the beginning.
The first poke of her hook in a barrel before a large china store uncovered a very unusual object—a doll's head. A look of surprise came into her large black eyes, next a quick glance around to see if any one was looking, and then a sudden disappearance of the treasure into her pocket.
She hurried through the rest of the barrels in the row, and passed down the street toward the river, thinking of a hiding-place she knew. It was a corner formed by a pile of lumber on the end of a pier in the North River,—so small and so hard to reach that few knew of it, where she often spent a quiet half hour, sure of not being ordered away by policeman or workman, looking at the river and the boats, thinking hard thoughts of her hated life, and dreaming of plans to run away. For she could remember when things were very different—a sweet-faced mother who talked another language, and called her Violetta; clean clothes, enough to eat, and a decent home. That was two or three years ago, before her mother was carried to a hospital and never came back, and she had to poke over ash-barrels to keep from starving.
This morning, as I said, she finished her task, and hastened to her private nook. Safely she slipped through the entrance and past the policeman, quickly ran across the narrow plank over the water, seized the end of a projecting board, swung herself around the corner of the pile, at the great risk of falling into the river, and then sat down in her retreat.
The moment she was safe she drew from her pocket the treasure she had found, and examined it at her leisure. It was a very pretty head of bisque, with a sweet face, blue eyes, and head covered with short real curls of blond color. It was not soiled, being protected by the straw it had been packed in, and was not injured in the least, except—it was broken short off at the neck.
This, of course, unfitted it to be sold; but this had given it to Val, and she did not consider it. She was lost in the beauty of the face, and her feeling of unexpected wealth. This was her very own! You who have dolls and friends in plenty cannot imagine the joy this poor doll's head gave the lonely little ash-barrel girl.
No one should ever see this treasure. It should have a body and a dress. Val couldn't yet think how, but she was sure she could contrive it. It should have a name too—hers—the prettiest she knew. It should be Violetta. "Val's good enough for me!" she said, scorning her own shabby clothes and soiled hands.
Some time passed in dreaming and planning before Val remembered that she must go back, or the master for whom she worked would wonder where she had been, and perhaps suspect she had found something; he always did suspect that, and was very severe. Slowly, and after a long, lingering look, she hid her treasure away in her pocket, took up her bag, and retraced her steps.
She passed through several streets, and at last turned into a narrow alley between two tall, tumble-down houses. The alley ended, in the middle of the block, in a small court, paved over, and half filled with rubbish of all sorts. Into this court opened several wretched buildings, and every building had dozens of inhabitants. Even on this fresh May day, so clear and breezy outside, the air was heavy with bad odors, and noisy with voices of children.
Val hurried across the court, and entered the door of what she called her home. It was a rather large room, the greater part occupied with the contents of the bags brought in by the dozen or more boys and girls who worked for the owner. The bags had to be emptied, and the contents sorted into piles, each kind by itself, ready to be taken out and sold.
This was all that Val had of home and comfort. Was it any wonder that, as soon as the day's tasks were over and she had devoured her share of the poor food, she should go back into the street to wander about, to steal if she had a chance, to sit on sunny doorsteps, hang around shop windows, and try in every way desperation could suggest to add some pleasure to life?
One side of an old pile of rags in a corner of the room Val called hers, and had established her claim by many fights and hard words. Under this was her only hiding-place, and here was carefully concealed the doll's head.
As she had chance, when no one was in the room, Val arranged a body by making a hard roll of a tolerably clean piece of muslin she had found, and stuffing one end into the open neck of her treasure. No arms or legs, even no shoulders, had this queer doll, yet Val was delighted when she had accomplished so much as that.
The next thing was a dress. Now Val had one piece of finery, found in an ash-barrel before a grand house up-town. It was a lady's silk apron, soiled and worn, having probably descended from the parlor to the kitchen, and at last to the ash-barrel. It was soiled, to be sure, but it was soft in texture and rich in color, and it was lavishly trimmed with ruffles. Often at night, when all were asleep, and the moon or the street-lamp made a little light in the room, Val had drawn this treasure from its hiding-place, stroked it and admired it, tried it on, and dreamed of the day she longed for, when she should dare to wear anything so elegant. Now, however, that she had her dear Violetta to dress, she remembered the apron, and decided that the doll, and not she, should wear it.
She waited impatiently for Sunday, when, work being stopped because of the city laws and the police, all went out and spent the day where it pleased them—on the docks or on the streets, mission schools not having yet penetrated the court. Val had been used to spend much of her Sunday, when the weather was fine, in the nook behind the lumber, but this day she stayed at home and dressed her precious doll. She had no needles or thread, or scissors with which to cut and fashion her dress, even if she had known how to do so, but she had plenty of pins which she had picked up. With these she arranged the little apron into a dress, finishing the whole by tying the ribbon-strings around the waist to form a sash.
No French doll of the most elegant sort, with dresses and jewels by the trunkful, ever gave so much pleasure, I am sure, as this one poor little head, dressed in an old silk apron.
Val was in ecstasies. She could not take her eyes off the beautiful creature, and she felt as happy as if she had found a friend. She set her upon a broken chair before her, called her Violetta, and talked to her in the language her mother had talked—Italian.
That hour the poor ash-barrel girl was more happy than any queen, for she forgot her dismal surroundings, her hard life, her cruel master, her always yearning hunger, while her eyes grew soft and her heart warm with real love for her treasure.
Now, "Old Rags"—as her master was called in the court—was very well-to-do for a resident in that place; and though hard in general, he had one soft spot in his heart. That was for his daughter Mina, who was a cripple and a great sufferer: it was said on account of her father's brutal treatment when young.
However that may be, he was very gentle to her now, and had another room than the one Val lived in, on purpose for her. This room, furnished decently, though very poorly, was to Val a picture of comfort. It had chairs that could be used, a real bed with pillows and cover, a table with whole dishes to eat from. Into this room Val had often looked with envy of the poor girl lying there. She envied her pleasant room, her decent clothes, enough to eat, her easy life because she did not have to poke over ash-barrels.
A day or two after she had completed the dressing of Violetta, and while her heart was still full of happiness, Val had occasion to pass the door of Mina's room. It was a little open, and looking in, as she always did, she caught sight of the child on her bed, her face white and drawn with pain. This was nothing new, but Val's eyes fell upon a doll which was evidently carefully cherished by the little invalid. It was of rags rolled into a bundle, and dressed in a piece of faded calico simply pinned around it like a shawl.
In an instant Val thought of Violetta, so much more beautiful, and this thought softening her heart, she was seized with the first feeling of pity she had ever felt for Mina. "How she would love Violetta!" came like a flash into her mind, instantly followed by the thought, "But I won't give her away."
She went back to the other room, but somehow she could not get that suffering child out of her mind; nor could she put away the thought of the happiness Violetta would bring to her. For the first time she realized what it must be to be shut up all the time; suffering, too,—with no fresh, sweet air as Val could get when she went down to the water; no cool sea breeze; no warm sunshine; no pretty shop-windows to look into and think what you would have if you could choose; not one of the pleasant things that even an ash-barrel girl could have.
"But she doesn't have to carry an old bag, and poke in the dirt," Val said to herself, angry that she should pity one so much better off than she. "Though I'd rather do that than never go out," she couldn't help thinking. "And then she has good dresses to wear and enough to eat," came to her from the other side. "But she is in pain all the time, and often can't eat a bit," was the answering thought.
So the battle went on in Val's heart: the pity she could not drive away, against the hard envy she had always felt. Then, too, when the pity would get the advantage it always suggested that Val should give her the doll. That was the point to which the struggle always came around.
Several days passed, and the next Sunday came before Val had fought the battle out for herself; but at last pity conquered, and she resolved to give her only treasure to one who needed it more than she. On this day, therefore, after everybody had gone out, Val, taking a passionate leave of Violetta, hid her in a fold of her dress, and went to Mina's door.
The poor child lay, as usual, on her little bed. Val walked in, and, without a word, held up Violetta.
"See my doll!" she said, in a moment, shortly.
Mina's eyes opened wide with surprise and admiration. "Oh, how sweet! Where did you get her?" she gasped.
"Found her head; dressed her myself," said Val briefly.
"I never saw one so pretty," said Mina. "May I take her a minute? I'll be just as careful."
"You may have her to keep!" shouted out Val, handing her over.
Mina's amazement almost struck her dumb. That any one should give away such a treasure was beyond her understanding.
"F'rever 'n ever," said Val bravely, though the words seemed to choke her.
"Oh!" was all the poor girl could say in her emotion, and Val bolted out of the room, rushed down-stairs, and threw herself on the pile of rags, feeling more desolate than ever.
Not that she wished to take back the gift, but it was a wrench to her very heart-strings. It was as if you were giving up everything nice and pretty you have in the world.
"Never mind!" she said to herself, "I can go out, and she can't. Maybe I'll find another head—and another apron," she added, more slowly; "though I most know I shan't."
In spite of her pain at the loss of Violetta, Val was surprised to find a strange new feeling about her heart, a sort of warmth unusual to her. She began to feel an interest in Mina, a constant wish to do something for her. She began to hang around her door, partly to see the doll, which was cherished to her heart's content, and partly to try to do something for Mina. Now she began to notice Mina's neatness, and her own dirty hands.
"It's no use," she said desperately, the first time she thought of this; yet, all the same, the next day she joined the throng of girls who went to the free bath-houses—a crowd she had often laughed at. Now, however, she heartily enjoyed a good scrubbing, and came out greatly improved in looks as well as feeling.
I do not mean to go on, step by step, and tell you how, very gradually, Val, the ash-barrel girl, changed from the day she made the great sacrifice. She stayed more with Mina, and grew ashamed of rough talk and rude ways. To her surprise, although her work was as dirty and unpleasant as before, although she had no better food, and no more attractive surroundings, she somehow found the bitterness and hardness taken out of her thoughts. She acquired the habit of saving for Mina every nice thing she found, which heretofore she had hastily eaten herself—a good half of a discarded banana, a fair cherry or two in a lot thrown away, a sound "bite" in a decayed apple. Everything found its way to the sick girl, and while, strangely enough (as it seemed to her), making Val herself happier, gave new pleasures to the last few months of Mina's life, for before cold weather came again the little sufferer was released from all pain.
If you have ever visited a spot where the graves of the poor, among foreigners, are made, you have doubtless seen the small glass cases or houses erected over the resting-places of children, containing their playthings and precious possessions—a broken doll, a battered cup, a tin horse, etc. In like manner, over the lowly bed of Mina, her father placed a small house of glass, and in it—Violetta!
No one asked Val to go to the small funeral of the child, but she heard something said about "Calvary Cemetery," and the first Sunday she could inquire the way there she walked out—several miles—and, to her own surprise, found the last resting-place of her only friend, by help of Violetta, who sat like a queen in her house of glass.
And now the doll from the ash-barrel did her one more good turn—the last; for the hopeless, friendless look of the girl attracted the notice of a lady interested in the charitable schools of the city.
Inquiring about her, and learning her friendless condition and her desire to improve, the lady placed her in an industrial school, where she was taught to read and write, decent ways of life, and a work that would take care of her.
The last time I saw Val she was dressed in a pretty calico dress, with a long white apron, and a tiny cap on her head, wheeling a baby carriage: a most trusty looking nurse-girl, well-fed and happy.
"That wasn't so bad, after all," said Kristy. "I shall not be afraid of you again, Mr. Coles; but it's dreadful to think of those poor girls in the city. I wish I could give every one a doll."
"The only story I know about Christmas," said Mrs. Carnes, whose turn came next, "is something that happened in a little village in Maine, near enough to Canada to have caught the fashion of using toboggans."
"Toboggans are lovely," said Kristy with a sigh.
"Yes, we all know about these curious sleds now, but at the time of my story they were never seen out of Canada and its borders."