A Bent Twig by Myra Kelly

Story type: Literature

In season and out of season Constance Bailey, that earnest young educator, preached of the value of honesty. And fifty little children of Israel who formed the First Reader class, and the one little son of Erin who led it, hearkened to her: always with politeness, and sometimes with surprise.

To some of the boys it seemed incredible that a person of mature years, and–upon other subjects–common sense, should cling to a theory which the most simple experiment must prove both mischievous and false. Had not Abraham Wishnewsky, a spineless person, misled by her heresies, but narrowly escaped the Children’s Court and the Reformatory?

Strolling through Gouverneur Street upon a Friday afternoon when the whole East Side is in a panic of shopping, he had seen a bewigged and beshawled matron shed a purse and pass on her way unheeding. Promptly Abraham set his foot upon it, carefully and casually he picked it up, and then, all inconveniently, he remembered Miss Bailey and her admonitions! Miss Bailey and her anecdotes of boys who, in circumstances identical with his, had chosen the path of honor, and had found it to lead to riches, approbation, glory, and self-righteousness.

Abraham opened the purse. It contained fifteen cents. He appropriated the nickel as a first instalment of the reward so soon to be his, and then sped fleetly–as Miss Bailey’s heroes had ever done–after the brown-shawled matron and glory. But the matron had evidently not been trained in the school of high honor. She regarded Abraham with suspicion rather than with gratitude. She examined the purse in the same spirit, and her investigations led to loud outcries upon her part, and to swift flight upon Abraham’s.

Abraham Wishnewsky was so ill-advised as to confide the details of this adventure to a young gentleman who rejoiced in a rabbit face, close-set lashless eyes, and the name of Isidore Cohen. Isidore was new to Room 18, and new to his place beside the gentle Abraham. Miss Bailey and her applied ethics were startlingly new to him. And he never reported to Abraham any effort to experiment in revolutionary doctrines.

Some of the more credulous among the feminine First Readers also weighed these precepts in the balance and found them wanting.

“You know how Teacher says,” Sarah Schodsky remarked to Bertha Binderwitz, as the two friends, arms intertwined, heads close together, walked and talked in the yard at the recess hour. “You know how she says we dasen’t never to tell no lies.”

Bertha nodded. “That’s how she says,” she agreed.

“Well,” resumed Sarah, “you see how Mamie Untermeyer don’t comes no more on the school?”

Bertha had remarked this absence.

“Well, Mamie she lives by her auntie. She is got a awful auntie. Und she asks her auntie for a penny for buy hokey pokey. Und her auntie makes a mean laugh und says, ‘What you think I am, anyway?’ und Mamie, she tells it right out what she thinks over her auntie, like Teacher says, ‘We shall all times tell what we thinks.’ She lays on the bed now mit bangages on the head. It ain’t so awful healthy you shall tell truths on aunties.”

This report also reached the rabbit ears of Isidore Cohen. And again he wondered that Miss Bailey should waste her time–and his–in folly.

And then he made an amazing discovery. Teacher actually believed what she taught. She was ready to meet confidence with trust, and to practise what she preached.

“I never seen nothing like it,” he reported to his friend, Hymie Solomon. “She looks like she knew a awful lot, but she don’t know nothings ‘tall.”

“What do you suppose is the matter with her?” demanded Hymie. “Miss Blake, she don’t act crazy. She don’t give us no talk ‘out no sense.”

Now Hymie and Isidore were old friends and cronies. In the days before a Truant Officer and their distracted fathers had consigned them to school, Hymie and he had trod the ways which might have led them to the Children’s Court and the Reformatory; but the Board of Education chanced to be the first power that laid hands upon them, and Hymie, who was a year older than his friend, and who had once undergone some intermittent education, was put in Miss Blake’s class, while Isidore, virgin soil where prescribed learning was concerned, joined the First Readers. Miss Bailey’s teachings as reported by Isidore formed amazing subjects for conversation.

See also  Other People’s Eyes by T. S. Arthur

“Und she says,” he would report, “that nobody dasn’t to steal nothings off of somebody.”

“Then how does she think we shall ever get anything?”

“Somebody shall give it to us.”


“Teacher ain’t said.”

“No, I guess she ain’t. I’d like to see her gettin’ along on just what was give to her.”

“Well,” Isidore remembered, “she says we shall ‘work-un-strive.’”

“She does, does she? An’ git pinched by the Gerry Society? She knows as good as you do that nobody would let you work. An’ she knows as good as you do, too, that craps ain’t safe round here no more; an’ that you just can’t git nothin’ unless you take it. She’s actin’ crazy just to fool you.”

“No, she ain’t,” Isidore maintained, “she don’t know nothings over them things.”

“An’ her grown up,” sneered Hymie; “say, but you’re easy!”

This faith in and affection for Miss Bailey were not confined to the little First Readers who inhabited Room 18 from nine until twelve, and again from one until three. These were Miss Bailey’s official responsibilities, but Gertie Armusheffsky’s education was a private affair, though her devotion was no less wholehearted. Her instruction was carried on sometimes amid the canaries and fern baskets of Room 18, and sometimes at Miss Bailey’s home.

For Gertie, though nearly fifteen years old, was allowed but rare and scanty freedom for the pursuit of learning. The grandfather with whom she lived had imported her from Poland to assist him in the conduct of his little shop in Goerck Street.

He was a miserly old man. The shop was little and mean, and Gertie’s life in it was little and miserly and mean. These things she bore with the wonderful patience or stoicism of her race. She bore, too, bad air, long hours, and uncongenial toil, but she could not bring any resignation to bear on the lovelessness of her life, the squalor, the ugliness.

“I ain’t puttin’ up no kick,” she would assure Miss Bailey, in her newly acquired and strictly modern vernacular, “about doin’ all the woik in the store, an’ in the back room too. Didn’t I know I was comin’ over to cook an’ sew an’ see to everything for him? What gits on my noives is his everlasting grouch.”

“It must be hard,” Miss Bailey acquiesced, “especially as you have no one else, no friends.”

Gertie shook her head. “Ain’t got a friend in the world only you,” said she. “How could I have any one come to see me with him carryin’ on like he does? An’ I can’t get away from him. He paid my way over, an’ if I did git a job the Gerry Society would give me back to him.”

“But you’re nearly old enough now,” Miss Bailey encouraged her, “to do as you please, and you’re getting on so nicely with your reading and writing that you will be able to get a very good position.”

“Not ’til he’s dead,” the girl answered. “I guess you wouldn’t learn me no more if you knew how often I wish he’d choke himself, or fall down cellar, or go out an’ git run over. But he don’t never go out. He says he’s afraid something would happen to the store. But that’s a pipe! What bothers him is the cash he’s got tucked around in crazy places. Every once in a while I fall into some of it, and then he ‘most has a fit explaining how it’s change a customer is comin’ back for. Last year it wasn’t quite so bad. He went to night school one term. You would have died laughing to see him all folded up at a kid’s desk tryin’ to write in a copy book. They learned him to write three words that term, but when he found out that he couldn’t read them in print, it sort of discouraged him, and he stayed home.”

See also  Birbal Betrays Himself

“It’s awfully hard for you,” Miss Bailey repeated, “but you mustn’t let yourself say such things or think such things–about his getting killed, I mean–it’s not”–she found herself on the verge of saying “Christian,” but remembered that Gertie made no pretence to the Christian virtues–“not loving,” she ended, and felt that the meaning of the two words was very much the same.

“Well, I don’t love him,” said Gertie shortly, “I hate him!”

“That’s another thing you mustn’t say.”

“All right, I won’t say it. I do it all the time.”

“What’s the capital of Massachusetts?” demanded Miss Bailey, changing the subject with a jerk.

“It’s Grandpa’s capital that’s bothering me,” laughed Gertie, but she allowed herself to be led away from the trials and problems of Goerck Street into the cool groves of learning.

* * * * *

A few mornings later Miss Blake, whose kingdom, Room 17, bordered upon Miss Bailey’s territory, bustled into Room 18 with a fat and elaborate purse in her hand.

“You know that wicked little Hymie Abrahams who seems to be always getting into trouble,” she began, when the First Readers had stiffened to straight “attention” and sat, each in his little place, like some extraordinary form of tin soldiers.

Miss Bailey nodded. She had indeed for many days been haunted by the fear that Hymie Abrahams would perpetrate some too flagrant breach of discipline, and be degraded to the First Reader class, and she naturally dreaded the advent of such a wolf among her little lambs.

“Well,” said Miss Blake, “he can’t be all bad. I guess he has some human feelings. He brought me this bag this morning. Says his mother doesn’t need it any more, and wants me to have it. It’s almost new, you see, and really very handsome. Just let me show you the fittings. I guess his mother wouldn’t find much use for powder puffs and mirrors and smelling-salts. Not if I know anything about the women of the East Side, she wouldn’t.”

She spread the glittering useless things upon Miss Bailey’s desk, and the force with which this bribe carried away her earlier dislike showed that Hymie Solomon had mastered the art of character reading. And Miss Bailey, as she reviewed the dainty paraphernalia spread before her, found herself wondering how soon Madame Solomon would miss her treasures and come storming in pursuit of them. And beside Miss Bailey’s desk sat Isidore Cohen in an agony of doubt and disillusionment. His one childish attribute was that of believing that all he knew must be common knowledge. Therefore he argued that the powers before him knew as well as he did that Hymie Solomon was motherless, and that Miss Blake would be most unwise to look her gift purse in the pedigree. And so, as Miss Blake exhibited and Miss Bailey admired, the work of weeks was undone. One teacher was acting as a “fence,” and another was cheering and encouraging her. He had doubted this “honesty the best policy” propaganda from the first. But he had believed in the sincerity of its prophet.

Yet he might have been prepared. Had not his father, wise and experienced in the ways of the world, armed him with the formula: “Krists is fakes”? His own adventures had corroborated this, and Miss Bailey from the very first had made no attempt to conceal her connection with that despised sect. Of course she was a fake. No more than half an hour ago she had thrilled her audience with misinformation, and manufactured biography all going to prove the nobleness–even the expediency–of honesty; and now she was purring delightedly over the fruits of Hymie’s sleight-of-hand.

Isidore’s was not a sentimental nature. Idealism was not his forte. And yet he could not help wishing that, if only for the confusion of Hymie and his father, Miss Bailey had proved to be “on the level.”

See also  Concerning a Dog-Fight by Banjo Paterson

Mr. Cohen pere believed in nothing but the rights of man, though his opinion of man was so low as to preclude his having any rights at all. He was especially opprobrious toward all those in authority, and he made no exception in the case of his son’s teacher. “She belongs to the machine,” he would asseverate with warmth. “Run by the machine, paid by the machine, a part of the machine. Policemen, firemen, teachers, inspectors, they are all the same. All parts of the big machine. And what is it chewing? Us. What does it live on? Us again. Don’t you try to fool me about that teacher of yours.”

Isidore had been making no such attempt, and he repudiated the idea with scorn. He was accustomed to vehement paternal outbreaks, for Mr. Cohen was a popular orator in his social club, and he often rehearsed his eloquence in the home circle. Not often, however, did Isidore understand or remember the fervid periods. This attack upon Miss Bailey he did remember, though he did not understand. To him a machine was a sewing-machine, and his father, though he evidently meant something, could not have meant to associate her with that most useful member of the family.

“Just like all the rest of them,” his father had said. “A grafter,” and now that Miss Blake had fallen from honesty, what proof was there that Miss Bailey was not equally approachable?

And certainly Miss Blake played the game with the promptness and surety of an old understanding. Influence or income are the counters in the game, and she dealt both cheerily. Three days after the presentation of the purse the post of Monitor of Supplies in Room 17 fell vacant, and Hymie Solomon received it. That was the influence, he was “holding down a job.” Two days later he discovered a market for surplus textbooks and other school supplies. Thus was the income assured. No one could doubt Miss Blake was familiar with the rules.

“You’d never believe,” said she to her neighbor in fond and unfounded pride, “what a little responsibility will do for an almost incorrigible boy. You wouldn’t know Hymie. He stays behind almost every afternoon when I go home, getting things straightened out.”

“They all have their good points,” said Constance Bailey. “I am thinking of doing something of the same kind about Isidore Cohen. We must hold their interest, you know.”

It was about a week later. Miss Bailey and her monitors were putting Room 18 to rights after the stress and storm of the day. Gold-fish, window-boxes, canaries, and pencil points were all being ministered to by their respective supervisors, and the door opened and Gertie Armusheffsky appeared. Such a distracted, tear-stained, white-lipped Gertie that Miss Bailey swept her monitors into their weird wrappings and dismissed them with all speed.

“I can’t go home,” cried Gertie in desperation. “Honest, Miss Bailey, he’d kill me if I did.”

And after listening to the girl’s story, Miss Bailey congratulated herself that she had no other charges old enough to be caught in trouble as difficult.

Old Mr. Armusheffsky had read of a fire in a Brooklyn glove factory: hundreds of pairs of damaged gloves were spoken of. Now Mr. Armusheffsky kept his store very dark, and only the most fatal damages could be detected in its dim light. Catastrophes such as this of the glove factory were his opportunities. He always–he never left the store–sent Gertie to negotiate with the bereaved manufacturers, the insurance agents, or whoever chanced to be in authority over the debris. Upon this day there chanced to be no debris: the fire and the firemen had done their work. There was no one even to interview. And Gertie, somewhat apprehensive as to her grandfather’s displeasure and disappointment, set out for home. She enlivened her homeward way by a visit to a big department store, where she envied the be-pompadoured damsels behind the counters; plunged into the squirming crowd around a bargain table and secured a jabot of real German Mechlin lace for thirteen cents. After this transaction she had in her purse the twelve cents left of her quarter dollar, and the jabot, the check showing its cost and the date, an unused trolley transfer, and the five dollars deposit which she was to have paid on the purchase of gloves. The purse was of the hand-bag variety, showy yet strong. It had been given to her as a reward and an encouragement by Miss Bailey.

See also  The Village Preacher by James Runciman

“An’ when I got off the car at the ‘loop’,” she ended, “an’ changed into the Second Avenue cable, somebody in the crowd swiped me bag. I didn’t have even a transfer left, an’ I had to walk here. I was pushing along in the crowd lookin’ at the signs ‘Beware of pickpockets’, an’ thinkin’ it was good I had no pockets to pick, when it come over me that my bag was gone. Just that easy! Me what ought to have known better. Say, you know it would be just as good as suicide to go an’ give that ‘pipe’ to Grandpa. So I was thinking maybe you’d go round and sort of break the news. He’s got a lot of respect for you. An’ honest, I ain’t kiddin’. He’d kill me for that five dollars.” Then with sudden fury she ended, “I’d kill him for five cents.”

Miss Bailey had never responded with less alacrity to a cry for help. She had a genuine horror of the fierce, sore-eyed old vulture, with whom she had had to struggle so determinedly for the privilege of teaching Gertie. “Of course,” she said at last, “he will have to know–” But Miss Bailey was wrong, Mr. Armusheffsky never knew.

Room 18’s door opened again to admit two policemen, one plain-clothes man, who silently showed his badge to Miss Bailey, and three garrulous and dishevelled neighbors of the Armusheffsky menage.

At sight of Gertie the neighbors grew vociferous, triumphant. The policemen stationed themselves one on either side of Gertie, and the plain-clothes man explained to Miss Bailey that old Armusheffsky had been found murdered in his store, and that every man and woman for blocks around was as ready as these incoherent samples to testify that his granddaughter had often wished him dead, and had sometimes threatened to kill him.

“So I guess,” he ended pleasantly, “that ‘The Tombs’ will be this young lady’s address for a spell.”

“But I’ve been in Brooklyn all day,” protested Gertie when at last she found speech.

“Can you prove it? Talked to anybody? Got any witnesses?”

Gertie recapitulated her story.

“Got the goods you bought? Got the check on them?”

Gertie explained the loss of the purse.

The plain-clothes man shook his head. “I’m sorry, Miss,” said he to Miss Bailey, “but I guess it’s a case for the sergeant. Of course if that hand satchel turns up it will be all right, but the case looks bad to me. She ain’t the first what took the quickest way out of things she couldn’t stand. I don’t blame them myself, but that’s the jury’s business. Mine is to take the girl along with me. Your thinking so much of her will go a good ways to help her out. The patrol wagon is at the door. We’ll just be moseying along.”

Gertie went with him without a word. Her escape from her grandfather’s vituperations seemed to make her oblivious to everything else. Miss Bailey, however, was comforted by no such blindness. She realized that tragedy, perhaps death, had come to Room 18, and she set about averting them with characteristic energy.

The one frail thread upon which Gertie’s life hung led to one or two pawn shops whence purses, not hers, were reported. Then it snapped, and a whole mountain of circumstantial evidence was piled up in readiness to drop on her defenceless head when the days of the trial should come. Constance Bailey had never been so close to tragedy before, and she bore the juxtaposition very badly. She persisted in, and insisted upon effort, after the police and the reporters had done their best and worst. But always she was met, though never quite daunted, by the challenge to produce the purse with the proofs of alibi.

See also  Jan, the Unrepentant By Jack London

Under these conditions it naturally occurred that the little First Readers received but a very divided attention. Affairs of state in Room 18 were left largely to the board of monitors, and more than ever did it seem desirable to Isidore Cohen to secure a portfolio within that cabinet. For more than a week he had been ready to present his application. The proof of his fitness for office was wrapped in a newspaper under the decayed mattress upon which he slept. And he only waited a propitious moment to lay it and his application before Teacher. Her new habit of dashing away at the stroke of three had hitherto interfered with his plan, but about a week after Gertie’s arrest he found courage to elude the janitor, and to make his way to Room 18 at a quarter past eight in the morning.

And Miss Bailey arriving–pale, distraught, and heavy-eyed–at eight twenty-five, found the lost purse lying upon her blotter, and Isidore Cohen ready with the speech of presentation.

“Mine auntie,” it began–he had never had an aunt–“she don’t needs this pocket-book no more. You can have it.”

Miss Bailey dropped into her chair. “Isidore!” cried she. “Oh, Isidore! You’re the cleverest boy! I would rather have this bag than anything else in the world.”

A moment later her joy was gone again. The bag was absolutely empty, and Constance Bailey did some of the keenest thinking of her career.

“It would be quite perfect,” said she, “if I only had a few little things in it. Perhaps a transfer, a lace collar, or some pieces of paper”–she caught the gleam in Isidore’s rabbit eye, and amended quickly–“not money, of course. It would be foolish to carry money in a bag like this”–the gleam vanished–“but just a few papers and things would seem more natural.”

“Stands somethings like that to my house,” Isidore vouchsafed generously. “Mine auntie don’t needs them too.”

“Then perhaps,” said Constance Bailey carefully, “perhaps, dear, your aunt would let me have them.”

“I likes,” said Isidore, dashing off at an unmistakably natural tangent, “I likes I shall be monitors maybe off of somethings.”

Miss Bailey felt the teeth of the trap, but she knew that her hand was touching the very life of Gertie Armusheffsky, and she made no effort to escape. “And what sort of a monitor would you like to be?” she asked casually.

“Off of supplies,” was his decided answer.

“I think that could be arranged,” she replied. “And these little things to put in my bag?”

“I could to git ’em ‘fore the other kids comes in,” said Isidore.

And a few moments later she had obtained leave of absence from the principal, and was buttoning her gloves while she gave her final instructions to the substitute who would minister until luncheon hour to the First Readers.

“I’m quite sure you will have no trouble. The children understand that I shall be back in the afternoon. If you want pencils, paper, or anything else, Isidore Cohen will get them for you. For Isidore”–and she laid her hand upon his narrow head–“Isidore is monitor of supplies.”

Very late that afternoon a disillusioned monitor of supplies fared unostentatiously homeward from Room 18. He had never met candor equal to Miss Bailey’s, and he was in the grip of the paralyzing conviction that for as long as he remained within her sphere of influence, honesty would be the only expedient policy.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *