Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/278

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She paused in her undertaking to eye him grimly: “Young feller, I guess maybe you’re right, because you’re about the seventieth man thats told me that this week——” She sighed heavily. “What’d you think if I told you that I’ve been a-exhibitin’ ever since early this mornin’, and ain’t had a bite to eat?”

He was immediately sympathetic. “Ain’t that too bad! Could I bring you a hot bologna, ma’am?”

“I don’t eat bolognas,” answered the lady, austerely. “But I guess there wouldn’t be no kick, if I was pressed to go to the eatin’-house before I drop in my tracks. Talk about your feet gettin’ tired——

He was divided between panic at the thought of escorting the celebrity through the crowd and utter horror over the possibility of having to watch her eat, or feeding her himself. Even as he hesitated, glancing frantically about in search of an avenue of escape, someone behind him spoke:

“Couldn’t you go get somethin’ an’ bring it in here to her? I know the folks that run the eatin’-house an’ they’ll loan you the dishes to fetch it on, if I say so.”

Jem Brown turned thankfully to face a young girl, small and very frail, with hollow eyes and a hectic colour.

“Maybe you’d be willin’ to go with me?” he stammered.

She agreed. “I live at the eatin’-house—wait on table there. My name’s Jenny—Jenny Burke——” She broke off in a paroxysm of violent coughing; when she had finished there was a bright stain on the handkerchief she held against her lips. “Ain’t it. . . awful . . . to be sick? I’m so scared I can’t hold my job—but it’s gettin’ to be more than I can do to lift the trays,” she confided to him.

Again he forgot his shyness: “You oughtn’t to be a-tryin’ to lift trays. Where’s your folks? Why don’t someone look out for you?”

“I ain’t got no folks. And Mis’ Flynn at the eatin’-house is a widow woman with a big fam’ly of children. . . . Here it is!”

She quickly made the arrangements for the armless wonder’s food, took the money to Mrs. Flynn, and returned with the message that she was to go with him and bring back the dishes. “We’re short on plates, an’ those show people is careless an’ forgetful-like.”