Monday, March 10, 2014

The Black Shame of It - a short story with details about 1915 dance halls

The Green Book Magazine, October, 1915

I couldn't resist posting the entire story. It has a number of details about the dance hall and the dancing. 


 The Black Shame of It

Here is Mally Creigh a-traipsing out every night, and the wee kiddies alone. So let's go dance with Mally. 

By John Barton Oxford
Author of "Links of the Fetters," "The Knothole in the Seventeenth Board." etc.

THE thing that has drawn me to you is that new suit of yours. I notice it is one of the latest suits, of the proper shade; the coat, with a soft rolling collar and without shoulder-pads, buttoning with a single button in the vicinity of the solar plexus. It is just the sort of a suit I'm after—one that will make a man look attractively prosperous—as if, say, he were drawing down something like twelve dollars and a half per and didn't care how his money went.

Now, how about shoes? Got a pair of tans with the near-elk soles and the red rubber heels? And are you possessed of an almost-Panama hat? Say, this is luck! You see, I want to borrow that suit and hat and those shoes. Incidentally I want to borrow you inside them, provided you can do the steps of these new dances, the walky, hoppy, glidy ones, the fox-trot and the grapevine and the rest of 'em.
Yes, I want to borrow you, clothes and all, for somehow, in spite of them, you look a pretty decent sort underneath and withal possessed of some understanding. I want you to take a little run down to Drury's at Saltmeadow Beach and dance with Mally Creigh. I want you to keep your eyes open and report to me. Mrs. Costello, who lives just across the hall from Mally, says the authorities ought to be "spoke to" about her. Never mind why, nor how I am interested in Mally Creigh.

Mally is the girl with the blue-black hair, the over-white face and the big eyes, who works—when there is any work—in the stitching-room of the Forbes & Haskell factory down on Middle Street. Things have been mighty quiet at Forbes & Haskell's, as well as at pretty much every other factory in town, since the first of May.

Moreover with so many people idle and willing to grab the first thing with a dollar in it that turns up, Mally hasn't been able to earn a cent for several months. Mally, too, has responsibilities—Ula, aged six, and Thane, four. Her mother had died when Thane was two. Just four months later her father, slightly confused at the time, had mistaken one of the iron gates in the fence along the old canal for the door of Mitch Brodie's saloon. The gate, being locked, had incensed him extremely. For why should Mitch Brodie's door be shut upon so good a customer as he? The infamy of the thing made him put his shoulder against the gate, the while he roared threats against Mitch Brodie at the top of his voice. Queal Creigh was a big man and a powerful man. Wherefore the gate finally gave way beneath his assaults with disastrous results. It being late at night, there were no passers-by in the vicinity to hear the great to-do in the chilly waters of the old canal and fish him out in time.

THUS it came about that Mally took up the upkeep and support of the two little rooms on the second floor of the old wooden barracks on River Street, which the Creighs had been pleased to call home. Figure it out for yourself. There wasn't anything over on Mally's wages in the stitching-room at Forbes & Haskell's. Nor was there anything laid by for the rainy day that came with the shut-down in May. It was a factory man who owned the old barracks on River Street—a prudent cutter, who had seen hard times himself; so the matter of standing off the rent for a while was fixed with comparative ease. The matter of daily bread for two small mouths—Mally didn't count in her own in the estimate: anything would do for her—was not so amenable to arrangement. There would undoubtedly be work in the fall, she had been told at the factory, plenty of work in the fall; but in the meantime—ah, in the meantime!

One would have thought, after tramping about all day, ostensibly trying to find work of some sort, that Mally would have stayed in nights. You'd have thought for one thing she'd have been too tired to go out seeking diversion; you'd have thought, for another thing, she would have wanted to stay with Thane and Ula. Good kiddies, Thane and Ula, both of them— quiet, pretty, well-behaved little tykes. Ask Mrs. Costello, across the hall. She'll tell you. She shook her head often over Mally because of those two mites dependent on her, as well as because Mally was much prettier than Mrs. Costello's own Nora, of about Mally's age.

Mally, you see, despite the lack of work and the fact that the two kiddies look anything but well-fed, is traipsing off every night of her life. Where? "God knows," says Mrs. Costello with a shake of her head. Nora says she saw her down to Saltmeadow Beach last Wednesday night, and again Thursday night. The black shame of it; and them two young ones all sole alone in the place till after midnight. Nora says she was dancing at Drury's with a lot of "flashy-lookin' guys." She says it with very virtuous contempt—in that Nora couldn't get any sort of a "guy" to dance with her, flashy or otherwise.

Mrs. Costello reiterates monotonously that the authorities "oughter be spoke to" about it. Mrs. Costello, if the truth be known, has been earwigging me. It isn't necessary to repeat to you all Mrs. Costello has been saying of late. You know well enough what it would be, and with what sighs and frowns and narrowing of the eyes, yet withal with what evident relish, it would all be retailed by one of Mrs. Costello's stamp. Yet there is enough in what she has said to set me thinking. So I want you to go down to Saltmeadow Beach and dance with Mally to-night.

I'm convinced, from what Mrs. Costello has said, that she goes there every evening. It's upwards of four miles down there and not a step less back. Things I have heard make me think Mally generally walks—at least going. Even four miles is a pretty sweet little tramp after you've been poking about all day, especially if you expect to dance a greater part of the evening.

But you never can tell what a girl of Mally's age will or will not do when she's tired and discouraged and hungry for a little fun to shut out the grim, realities of life for a few hours.

Are you ready? Say, you look just as I wanted you to look. You're like the young chaps I've heard Mally has been dancing with down there. The way you droop that cigarette out of the corner of your mouth gives you a devil-may-care sort of air; it whispers, too, that you'll loosen up well with the seven-thirty-five roll in your pocket, left from last Saturday night's pay. You'll do in every respect, I imagine. Go to it! Cars leave the comer of Main and Prospect Street three times an hour—on the hour, twenty minutes past and twenty minutes of. You can get the twenty-minutes-past car if you hustle a little.

BY the skin of your teeth you manage to catch that twenty-minutes-past-the-hour car and swing yourself aboard. The evening being overcast and rather cold for midsummer, you pull down the curtain and huddle in a corner of the seat. It is rather late to be heading for Saltmeadow Beach. This, and the easterly chill of the evening, make the car anything but crowded. There are, however, several young couples, seated very close together in the corners by the down-drawn curtains, scattered through the seats.

Having been to Saltmeadow Beach many times before, you can orient yourself quite well with your ears; the hollow rumble of car-wheels tells you you are crossing the long wooden bridge over Cauliflower Creek; the whistle of wind against the curtains assures you of the greater speed of the car across the marshy stretches, from which your destination takes its name.

Then a rush of brighter lights dims the light of your car; a confused jumble of supposedly musical excerpts from orchestras and automatic pianos and the steam-pipes of the merry-go-rounds, together with a raucous bray of venders and fakirs, smites your ear. The car draws up at the waiting-station in the "Plaza," as it is grandly termed. The meek conductor squawks: "End o' the rowte. All out!" and begins to reverse the seat-backs. You follow his admonition and land in the heart of Saltmeadow Beach's gay night life.

Saltmeadow Beach is fed by a shoe town and two mill towns. Its diversions are of the catch-penny variety. The nickel is the standard fee, the dime the exceptional and the unpopular one.

HAVING a commission to fulfill, you fare forth to fill it. You know that Mally Creigh will be found at Drury's Pavilion. Drury's is the most popular dancing place at Saltmeadow. Its orchestra blares forth above the surrounding din. Its big electric sign twinkles on the peak of the roof, now red, now green, now white. It is a big, square, open place with a corridor for spectators running all about it. Its floor glistens with wax hastily administered after every fourth dance by bustling, shirt-sleeved gentlemen with long-handled contrivances, looking like overgrown mops.

Tickets, purchased in advance, of course, are a nickel apiece—six for a quarter. You mount the steps, invest two bits and look about for Mally Creigh.

A twilight waltz is on as you pass down the open corridor on one side. Twilight waltzes are very popular at Drury's, so the floor is crowded. They used to be moonlight waltzes a few seasons ago. They were danced with all the lights out, save only a feeble glow in the little raised niche where the orchestra perspired at its labors. A great and beneficent State, regardful of the welfare and morals of its citizens, passed a law against moonlight waltzes or any other dances in a darkened public hall. The lights should not be extinguished during any dance, said this carefully framed law. Drury got round it by calling his waltzes twilight instead of moonlight and putting dimmers on his lights—very, very dim dimmers. None of his lights were out, oh no, indeed; but you had to look very carefully to see them—or anything else— during the progress of a twilight waltz.

There is no use looking for Mally Creigh in that feeble light. You couldn't distinguish your closest friend's features three feet away. So you lean against an upright and watch dim shapes flit past in the gloom, and listen to the riot of applause every time the orchestra stops until it has given the patrons four encores. Drury can afford encores with the dancing floor packed as it is. It is he who signals the orchestra from his lookout well up toward the roof-peak, with a little red light.

But at last the lights flash up to their full glow. The orchestra puts down its instruments with an air at once of finality and relief, and mops perspiring faces. The dancers begin reluctantly to jam through the exits into the corridor and to fish out fresh tickets. It being a fourth dance, the shirt-sleeved gentlemen with the overgrown mops fall desperately to work upon the floor, which takes on an alluring glisten in their train. Peanuts crackle; cigarettes everywhere send up their reek. The orchestra leader hangs up the printed placard, "Two-step," for the coming dance, and Drury's is ready for the next terpsichorean orgy.

You stroll through the jam into the corridor on the other side of the floor. You are casting quick, covert glances at every girl you pass. Many of them are returning you glances not at all covert, coupled with giggly smiles. You look quite prosperous enough to be well supplied with dance-tickets.

Remembering that commission, however, you pass them up, one and all. And you see Mally Creigh at last, far down the corridor, close to the little raised pen in which the musicians are incarcerated. Mally is shaking her head firmly in negation to the invitations of a pasty-faced, bulbous-nosed young man, who finally turns from her, more or less sheepishly.

You recognize Mally partly because you have once seen her in the stitchingroom at Forbes & Haskell's, partly by descriptions furnished you before you set out on this errand—whatever the errand is.

YOU are not sure whether Mally strikes your own private tastes in feminine beauty or not. First you are sure she doesn't; then you are sure she does; then you go back to your first conclusion, waver and realize that somehow hers is a face that draws you strangely.

Mally, somewhat to your surprise, is very well dressed. The blue silk waist is somehow very becoming to her, and so is the plain, but trim, little skirt of a darker hue. Of course you cannot know that the waist is an old one of Nora Costello's, bought second-hand and made over by Mally herself; nor that the material of that skirt, likewise Mally's handiwork, has done years of yeoman service in the Creigh family. You notice the little black pumps and above them a pair of shapely silk-clad ankles. Well, some one left those pumps at Piscapo's to be mended and failed to call for them. Mally bartered an old pair of high shoes with Piscapo for them. As for the silk stockings, there is not the slightest reason why you should imagine that six inches above the ankle they shamelessly reverted to mercerized cotton, nor is it relevant how long Mally had treasured them, nor how many times the feet of them had been mended.

Then you come to the realization that you are standing there staring at Mally, and that under your fixed scrutiny, Mally is flushing a little and smiling a little—a rather timid but none the less tentative smile. The other girls, many of them, you have passed, have smiled at you, but it is not the same as Mally's. Where their smiles said, "Aw, come on, 'bo. Loosen up with some of them tickets you got 'n your pocket and gimme one turn outer 'em," hers seemed to say, "If you asked me— asked me nicely—I might dance with you."

Off comes your hat. You step a little nearer. Mally flushes in more pronounced fashion. You are very sure now she is pretty.
You say, "If you wouldn't mind a turn with me—"
You say it very meekly, at the same time drawing out all your tickets—the six of them you got at the wicket for your two-bit piece.
Mally looks at you keenly for a moment, takes you all in from head to foot.
"Why, no," she says. "I don't mind. It's a two-step, isn't it?"

The orchestra brays. The shuffling of feet, beginning faintly, momentarily grows louder. You lead Mally to the nearest entrance to the shining floor. One of your tickets goes to the eagle-eyed attendant there—he helps with the mop affairs after every fourth dance— and you and Mally are skimming over the fresh coat of wax. She dances well; she neither drags nor falters; you cannot feel an ounce of weight of her on your arms. And all the time you are dancing, and in the little pauses when the orchestra has stopped and you are applauding with the rest for an encore, Mally's eyes are quietly taking your measure. You know it; you see it; you feel it.

When the two-step is over and the placard, "Hesitation," has been displayed, Mally agrees to dance that with you too. But after that comes a twilight waltz, and Mally shakes her head. She does it with much finality.
"I don't dance them now, with anybody," she explains to you, as one who speaks whereof she knows.
So you watch the long twilight waltz through, leaning against an upright, while she perches herself on the rail close by. She says she'll go on with you for the one-step, which is placarded immediately after the twilight waltz.

In the first pause of that one-step, Mally says softly: "My, doesn't dancing make you hungry?"
How can you know she has said that to three other men earlier in the evening, with the accumulated success of nothing from the first, an ice-cream cone from the second and a bag of peanut brittle from the third? How can you know that last evening she danced wearily with six men and, making the same tentative suggestion, drew no results whatever save a quick dropping of her by her partners as soon as their respective dances were finished?

How can you know that it is these things that bring the quick light to her eyes as much as your nonchalant admission: "You've said something right there, girlie. Let's cut this and find the eats."

NOW, at the back of the left-hand corridor at Drury's, close to the orchestra, is a little room where for the display of one dance-ticket, you may check as many things as you like for the evening. Mally, it seems, has a raincoat there. So thither you go with her and help her into it. It is a very tattered and frayed old raincoat. It is not at all in keeping with the rest of Mally's clothes. You do not know, as you help her into it, that there is a big pocket sewed inside it—a huge pocket, a colossal pocket. Nor do you realize why Mally should want to spoil the picture of herself by putting on that raincoat. That is because you don't know about that inside pocket. You do not know that the flatness or the bulginess of that pocket is the timepiece whereby Mally regulates her stay at Saltmeadow Beach.

You take Mally to the Surfside Cafe. It is not imposing. Its tablecloths would be better for laundering; the odors of fried fish and clam-chowder wage incessant warfare between each other all over the place. Mally orders plainly but substantially. No, she doesn't care for lobster; no, nor the ice-cream, either. She'd like—perhaps some sandwiches—yes, a double order of the sandwiches—and some of the light fruit-cake, and they serve you the nicest orders of little fancy crackers here. The double order of sandwiches is a very generous double order; there is much of the light fruit-cake— a whole bowl of the crackers. You wonder what on earth the girl will do with it all. Mally begins on a cracker, nibbling it daintily. You are requested to look at a queer couple at a table near the door. You find you have to turn about to see them. You do not look at them for any such amazing period of time; but when you turn back, to your amazement the sandwiches are gone to the last crumb. A moment later the couple is again doing something you should not miss. When you turn about, the light fruit-cake has disappeared. In the meantime, too, the crackers have vanished.

"I was so, so hungry," mumbles Mally, noting the direction of your rather startled gaze.
"Well, don't go hungry," you urge cordially. "Something else?"

And Mally says she'd like two more sandwiches, which same you duly order for her. Only this time you are bound to see how she eats them. You're more than curious; you're mystified. So, despite other queer doings of the couple by the door, you keep an eye on Mally and the sandwiches, or if you turn in your chair, you turn only halfway round, watching her out of the tail of your eye. You see Mally eat half a sandwich quite normally. She doesn't bolt it nor swallow it at a single gulp. But she only eats half the first sandwich. She sighs and begins to button the raincoat.

"I thought I was lots hungrier than I really was when I had you order those last sandwiches," she says apologetically.

So, having finished your own lobster Newburg,—at least they said that was what the sticky mess was,—you pay the checks and leave; but at the door Mally finds she has dropped a side-comb. Nor
will she accept your gallant coffers to return yourself for it. She slips back with a quick darting movement that brings her back to you before you can scarcely stir from your tracks. She has bent quickly over the table. Through the window, you see the last sandwiches you have ordered are gone from their thick plate.

Mally says it is late and she must go home. She lets you ride back on the car with her. You do not know it is because she hasn't the carfare and the four-mile walk seems endless to- her tired feet.
Neither do you know how bungling is that inner pocket when one is walking, nor how badly the things in it get broken up if there is any great distance to go. In fact, you do not even know there is a pocket, but you guess at its existence when, as you are helping Mally from the car, she stumbles sleepily, and two little sweet crackers— the sort of sweet crackers that are served in bowls at the Surfside Cafe— drop at your feet. Mally sees them too, but her head goes back and she pretends she hasn't noticed them.

"Good-night," she says, "and thanks for a nice evening!"
"I'd like to see you all the way home —to your door," you are suggesting, when:
"Good-night!" she says again, and is quickly gone.

Then, soothing your conscience with the commission I have given you and the report I have asked, you do a very underhanded thing. Quietly, keeping to the shadows, you follow Mally in her retreat. You follow along Main Street to Green and down Green to River. You see Mally disappear in the doorway of the old barracks. A moment later a light leaps up in a second-story window. You creep into the house and up a dark stairway. You pause at a door under which a little stream of light filters out into the darkness. You hear voices, childish voices, asking eager questions.

"Yes," you hear Mally's voice. "Mally brought you something to-night. Aren't those great little crackers! Yes, you can have some right now, and a sandwich between you. We'll keep the rest for to-morrow."

Then you hear a door across the hall closing softly. Having heard of Mrs. Costello from me, you presume it is her voice that comes to your ears.

"She's jest got back, Nora—jest come in. The black shame av it, and thim two little kiddies knowin' it's long after midnight whin she gets here! 'Tis the authorities oughter be spoke to about it, and thim two wee wans took away from the inflooence av the loikes av her."

BUT you hear no more of Mrs. Costello's complaint, for, with your ear to the keyhole of that door, you are listening to Mally's voice again. "Yes, dearie, Mally has to work hard for it—awful hard," the tired, droning voice was saying. "But by and by in the fall there'll be work back at the shop, and Mally can be here with you nights again. Until then, dearie, until then—"

To your straining ears the voice suddenly ceases. There follows at once the sound of deep breathing.
"Sh-h, Thane! Sh-h!" a hoarse, childish whisper admonishes. "Don't make so much noise with that cracker. Mally's went to sleep right there at the table. Don't wake her!"

At this juncture, if you're the gentleman I take you to be, you'll take off your hat—take it off to Mally Creigh—and go tiptoeing down the stairs. And you'll be a strange sort of an individual if you don't go with a lump in your throat. 

And again, if you're the sort of chap I think you are, you'll be telling yourself that you agree with Mrs. Costello that the authorities should be "spoke to" about this little matter—only you and Mrs. Costello wont agree at all as to whom the proper authorities are.

Also you'll tell yourself some one better speak to them quickly, before Mrs. Costello rushes in where angels fear to tread and has the two children taken away from Mally.

Mrs. Costello might well do something of the sort. There is no telling. Life is full of just such quaint little pranks.

(John Barton Oxford, The Black Shame of It, The Green Book Magazine, Vol. 14, October 1915, p. 731-736)

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