She stopped her cornering to inspect my work, which had not flagged an instant. Mrs. Smith took another bite of gingerbread, and continued with increasing animation:
"And then Little Rosebud turned away into the night with a low cry, just as if a dagger had been punched into her heart and turned around slow. She was only sixteen years old, and she had been brought up in luxury and idolized by her father; and all of a sudden she found herself homeless, with nowheres to sleep find no money to get a room at the hotel, and scorned by the man that had sworn to protect her. Her pa had cursed her, too, something awful, so that he burst a blood-vessel a little while afterwards and died before morning. Only Little Rosebud never found this out, for she took the midnight express and came up here to New York, where her aunt lived, only she didn't know the street-number."
"Where did she get the money to come to New York with?" interrupted the practical Phoebe. "That's something I don't understand. If she didn't have no money to hire a room at a hotel down in South Carolina for overnight, I'd like to know where she got money for a railroad ticket."
"Well, that's just all you know about them swells," retorted Mrs. Smith. "I suppose a rich man's daughter like that can travel around all over the country on a pass. And saying she didn't have a pass, it's only a story and not true anyway.
"She met a fellow on the train that night who was a villain for fair!" she went on. "His name was Mr. Paul Howard, and he was a corker. Little Rosebud, who was just as innocent as they make 'em, fell right into his clutches. He was a terrible man; he wouldn't stop at nothing, but he was a very elegant-looking gentleman that you'd take anywheres for a banker or 'Piscopalian preacher. He tipped his hat to Little Rosebud, and then she up and asked if he knew where her aunt, Mrs. Waldron, lived. This was nuts for him, and he said yes, that Mrs. Waldron was a particular lady-friend of his. When they got to New York he offered to take Little Rosebud to her aunt's house. And as Little Rosebud hadn't no money, she said yes, and the villain called a cab and they started for Brooklyn, him laughing to himself all the time, thinking how easily she was going to tumble into the trap he was getting fixed for her."
"Hot air!" murmured Phoebe.
"But while they were rattling over the Brooklyn Bridge, another man was following them in another cab—a Wall-street broker with barrels of cash. He was Raymond Leslie, and a real good man. He'd seen Rosebud get into the cab with Paul Howard, who he knew for a villain for fair. They had a terrible rumpus, but Raymond Leslie rescued her and took her to her aunt's house. It turned out that he was the gentleman-friend of Little Rosebud's cousin Ida, the very place they were going to. But, riding along in the cab, he fell in love with Little Rosebud, and then he was in a terrible pickle because he was promised to Ida. Little Rosebud's relations lived real grand, and her aunt was real nice to her until she saw she had hooked on to Ida's gentleman-friend; then they put her to work in the kitchen and treated her terrible. Oh, I tell you she had a time of it, for fair. Her aunt was awful proud and wicked, and after while, when she found that Raymond Leslie was going to marry Little Rosebud even if they did make a servant of her, she hired Paul Howard to drug her and carry her off to an insane-asylum that he ran up in Westchester County. It was in a lonesome place, and was full of girls that he had loved only to grow tired of and cast off, and this was the easiest way to get rid of them and keep them from spoiling his sport. Once a girl was in love with Paul Howard, she loved him till death. He just fascinated women like a snake does a bird, and he was hot stuff as long as he lasted, but the minute he got tired of you he was a demon of cruelty.
"He did everything he could, when he got Little Rosebud here, to get her under his power. He tried his dirty best to poison her food, but Little Rosebud was foxy and wouldn't touch a bite of anything, but just sat in her cell and watched the broiled chicken and fried oysters, and all the other good things they sent to tempt her, turn to a dark-purplish hue. One night she escaped disguised in the turnkey's daughter's dress. Her name was Dora Gray, and Paul Howard had blasted her life too, but she worshiped him something awful, all the same-ee. Dora Gray gave Little Rosebud a lovely dark-red rose that was soaked with deadly poison, so that if you touched it to the lips of a person, the person would drop dead. She told Little Rosebud to protect herself with it if they chased her. But she didn't get a chance to see whether it would work or not, for when she heard them coming back of her after while with the bloodhounds barking, she dropped with terror down flat on her stummick. She had suffered so much she couldn't stand anything more. The doctors said she was dead when they picked her up, and they buried her and stuck a little white slab on her grave, with 'Rosebud, aged sixteen' on it."
"Hot air!" from the irrepressible Phoebe.
I felt that courtesy required I should agree upon that point, and I did so, conservatively, venturing to ask the name of the author.
Mrs. Smith mentioned the name of a well-known writer of trashy fiction and added, "Didn't you never read none of her books?"
My negative surprised her. Then Phoebe asked:
"Did you ever read 'Daphne Vernon; or, A Coronet of Shame'?"
"No, I haven't read them, either," I replied.
"Oh, mama! Carry me out and let me die!" groaned Mrs. Smith, throwing down her paste-brush and falling forward in mock agony upon the smeared table.
"Water! Water!" gasped Phoebe, clutching wildly at her throat; "I'm going to faint!"
"What's the matter? What did I say that wasn't right?" I cried, the nature of their antics showing only too plainly that I had "put my foot in it" in some unaccountable manner. But they paid no attention. Mortified and utterly at sea, I watched their convulsed shoulders and heard their smothered giggles. Then in a few minutes they straightened up and resumed work with the utmost gravity of countenance and without a word of explanation.
"What was it you was asking?" Phoebe inquired presently, with the most innocent air possible.
"I said I hadn't read the books you mentioned," I replied, trying to hide the chagrin and mortification I felt at being so ignominiously laughed at.
"Eyether of them?" chirped Mrs. Smith, with a vicious wink.
"Eyether of them?" warbled Phoebe in her mocking-bird soprano.
It was my turn to drop the paste-brush now. Eye-ther! It must have slipped from my tongue unconsciously. I could not remember having ever pronounced the word like that before.
I didn't feel equal, then and there, to offering them any explanation or apologies for the offense. So I simply answered:
"No; are they very good? are they as good as 'Little Rosebud's Lovers'?"
"No, it ain't," said Mrs. Smith, decisively and a little contemptuously; "and it ain't two books, eye-ther; it's all in one—'Daphne Vernon; or, A Coronet of Shame.'"
"Well, now I think it is," put in Phoebe. "Them stories with two-handled names is nearly always good. I'll buy a book with a two-handled name every time before I'll buy one that ain't. I was reading a good one last night that I borrowed from Gladys Carringford. It had three handles to its name, and they was all corkers."
"Why don't you spit 'em out?" suggested Mrs. Smith. "Tell us what it was."
"Well, it was 'Doris; or, The Pride of Pemberton Mills; or, Lost in a Fearful Fate's Abyss.' What d' ye think of that?"
"It sounds very int'resting. Who wrote it?"
"Charles Garvice," replied Phoebe. "Didn't you ever read none of his, e—y—e—ther?"
"No, I must say I never did," I answered, ignoring their mischievous raillery with as much grace as I could summon, but taking care to choose my words so as to avoid further pitfalls.
"And did you never read none of Charlotte M. Braeme's?" drawled Mrs. Smith, with remorseless cruelty—"none of Charlotte M. Braeme's, eye-ther?"
"Nor none by Effie Adelaide Rowlands, e—y—e-ther?" still persisted Mrs. Smith.
"No; none by her."
"E—y—e—ther!" Both my tormentors now raised their singing-voices into a high, clear, full-blown note of derisive music, held it for a brief moment at a dizzy altitude, and then in soft, long-drawn-out cadences returned to earth and speaking-voices again.
"What kind of story-books do you read, then?" they demanded. To which I replied with the names of a dozen or more of the simple, every-day classics that the school-boy and-girl are supposed to have read. They had never heard of "David Copperfield" or of Dickens. Nor had they ever heard of "Gulliver's Travels," nor of "The Vicar of Wakefield." They had heard the name "Robinson Crusoe," but they did not know it was the name of an entrancing romance. "Little Women," "John Halifax, Gentleman," "The Cloister and the Hearth," "Les Miserables," were also unknown, unheard-of literary treasures. They were equally ignorant of the existence of the conventional Sunday-school romance. They stared at me in amazement when I rattled off a heterogeneous assortment from the fecund pens of Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney, "Pansy," Amanda M. Douglas, and similar good-goody writers for good-goody girls; their only remarks being that their titles didn't sound interesting. I spoke enthusiastically of "Little Women," telling them how I had read it four times, and that I meant to read it again some day. Their curiosity was aroused over the unheard-of thing of anybody ever wanting to read any book more than once, and they pressed me to reciprocate by repeating the story for them, which I did with great accuracy of statement, and with genuine pleasure to myself at being given an opportunity to introduce anybody to Meg and Jo and all the rest of that delightful March family. When I had finished, Phoebe stopped her cornering and Mrs. Smith looked up from her label-pasting.
"Why, that's no story at all," the latter declared.
"Why, no," echoed Phoebe; "that's no story—that's just everyday happenings. I don't see what's the use putting things like that in books. I'll bet any money that lady what wrote it knew all them boys and girls. They just sound like real, live people; and when you was telling about them I could just see them as plain as plain could be—couldn't you, Gwendolyn?"
"Yep," yawned our vis-a-vis, undisguisedly bored.
"But I suppose farmer folks likes them kind of stories," Phoebe generously suggested. "They ain't used to the same styles of anything that us city folks are."
While we had been trying to forget our tired limbs in a discussion of literary tastes and standards, our workmates had been relieving the treadmill tedium of the long afternoon by various expedients. The quartet at the table immediately in front of us had been making inane doggerel rhymes upon the names of their workmates, telling riddles, and exchanging nasty stories with great gusto and frequent fits of wild laughter. At another table the forthcoming ball of the "Moonlight Maids" was under hot discussion, and at a very long table in front of the elevator they were talking in subdued voices about dreams and omens, making frequent reference to a greasy volume styled "The Lucky Dream Book."
Far over, under the windows, the stripper girls were tuning up their voices preparatory to the late-afternoon concert, soon to begin. They hummed a few bars of one melody, then of another; and at last, Angela's voice leading, there burst upon the room in full chorus, to the rhythmic whir of the wheels, the melodious music and maudlin stanzas of "The Fatal Wedding."
Phoebe lent her flute-like soprano to the next song, the rather pretty melody of which was not sufficient to redeem the banality of the words:
"The scene is a banquet where beauty and wealth Have gathered in splendid array; But silent and sad is a fair woman there, Whose young heart is pining away.
"A card is brought to her—she reads there a name Of one that she loved long ago; Then sadly she whispers, 'Just say I'm not here, For my story he never must know.'
"That night in the banquet at Misery Hall She reigned like a queen on a throne; But often the tears filled her beautiful eyes As she dreamed of the love she had known.
"Her thoughts flowed along through the laughter and song To the days she could never recall, And she longed to find rest on her dear mother's breast At the banquet in Misery Hall.
"The time passes quickly, and few in the throng Have noticed the one vacant chair— Till out of the beautiful garden beyond A pistol-shot rings on the air.
"Now see, in the moonlight a handsome youth lays— Too quickly his life doth depart; While kneeling beside him, the woman he'd loved Finds her picture is close to his heart."
"What is the name of that song?" I asked when the last cadence of Phoebe's voice, which was sustained long after every other in the room was hushed, had died away.
"That! Why, it's 'The Banquet in Misery Hall,'" answered Mrs. Smith, somewhat impatient of my unfolding ignorance. But I speedily forgot the rebuke in a lively interest in the songs that followed one another without interlude. Phoebe was counting her pile of boxes and ranging them into piles of twelve high; so she couldn't sing, and I, consequently, could not catch all the words of each song. The theme in every case was a more or less ungrammatical, crude, and utterly banal rendition of the claptrap morality exploited in the cheap story-books. Reduced to the last analysis, they had to do with but one subject—the frailty of woman. On the one side was presented Virtue tempted, betrayed, repentant; on the other side, Virtue fighting at bay, persecuted, scourged, but emerging in the end unspotted and victorious, with all good things added unto it.
It was to me an entirely new way of looking at life; and though I couldn't in the least explain it to myself, it seemed, to my unsophisticated way of looking at such matters, that the propensity to break the seventh commandment was much exaggerated, and that songs about other subjects would have been much more interesting and not nearly so trying to the feelings. For the sweet voices of the singers could not but make the tears come to my eyes, in spite of the fact that the burden of the song seemed so unworthy.
"You all sing so beautifully!" I cried, in honest admiration, at the close of one particularly melodious and extremely silly ditty. "Where did you learn?"
Phoebe was pleased at the compliment implied by the tears in my eyes, and even Mrs. Smith forgot to throw out her taunting "eye-ther" as she stood still and regarded my very frank and unconcealed emotion.
"I guess we sort of learn from the Ginney girls," explained Phoebe. "Them Ginneys is all nice singers, and everybody in the shop kind of gets into the way of singing good, too, from being with them. You ought to hear them sing Dago songs, oughtn't she, Gwendolyn?"
"Yep," answered Gwendolyn; "I could just die hearing Angela and Celie Polatta singing that—what-d'ye-call-it, that always makes a body bu'st out crying?"
"You mean 'Punchinello.' Yep, that's a corker; but, Lord! the one what makes me have all kinds of funny cold feelings run up my back is that 'Ave Maria.' Therese Nicora taught them—what she says she learned in the old country. I wouldn't want anything to eat if I could hear songs like that all the time."
The clock-hands over Annie Kinzer's desk had now crept close to the hour of six, and Angela had only begun the first stanza of—
"Papa, tell me where is mama," cried a little girl one day; "I'm so lonesome here without her, tell me why she went away. You don't know how much I'm longing for her loving good-night kiss!" Papa placed his arms around her as he softly whispered this:
"Down in the City of Sighs and Tears, under the white light's glare, Down in the City of Wasted Years, you'll find your mama there, Wandering along where each smiling face hides its story of lost careers; And perhaps she is dreaming of you to-night, in the City of Sighs and Tears."
The machinery gave a ponderous throb, the great black belts sagged and fell inert, the wheels whirred listlessly, clocks all over the great city began to toll for one more long day ended and gone, while the voices of the girl toilers rose superbly and filled the gathering stillness with the soft crescendo refrain:
"Wandering along where each smiling face hides its story of lost careers; And perhaps she is dreaming of you to-night, in the City of Sighs and Tears— In the City of Sighs and Tears."
IN WHICH I ACQUIRE A STORY-BOOK NAME AND MAKE THE ACQUAINTANCE OF MISS HENRIETTA MANNERS
Before entering upon my second day's work at the box-factory, and before detailing any of the strange things which that day brought forth, I feel it incumbent upon me to give some word of explanation as to my whereabouts during the intervening night. It will be remembered that when I left the factory at the end of the first day, I had neither a lodging nor a trunk. I will not dwell upon the state of my feelings when I walked out of Thompson Street in the consciousness that if I had been friendless and homeless before, I was infinitely more so now. I will say nothing of the ache in my heart when my thoughts traveled toward the pile of ruins in Fourteenth Street, with the realization of my helplessness, my sheer inability even to attempt to do a one last humble little act of love and gratitude for the dead woman who had been truly my friend.
Briefly stated, the facts are these: I had, all told, one dollar, and I walked from Thompson Street straight to the Jefferson Market police-station, which was not a great distance away. I stated my case to the matron, a kindly Irishwoman. I was afraid to start out so late in the evening to look for a lodging for the night. I would have thought nothing of such a thing a few weeks previous, but the knowledge of life which I had gained in my brief residence in Fourteenth Street and from the advice of Mrs. Pringle had showed me the danger that lurked in such a course. The police matron said my fears were well founded, and she gave me the address of a working-girls' home over on the East Side, which she said was not the pleasantest place in the world for a well-brought-up girl of refinement and intelligence, such as she took me to be, but was cheap, and in which I would be sure of the protection which any young, inexperienced woman without money needs so badly in this wicked city. She wrote down the address for me, and I had started to the door of her little office when her motherly eye noticed how fagged out and lame I was—and indeed I could scarcely stand—and with a wave of her plump arm she brought me back to her desk.
"Why don't you stay here with me to-night?" she asked. "You needn't mind; and if I was you I would do it and save my pennies and my tired legs. You can have a bite of supper with me, and then bundle right off to bed. You look clean tuckered out."
So to my fast-growing list of startling experiences I added a night in the station-house; but a very quiet, uneventful night it was, because the matron tucked me away in her own little room. That is, it was quiet and uneventful so far as my surroundings were concerned, though I slept little on account of my aching bones. All night I tossed, pain-racked and discouraged; for, after all the long, hard day's work of the day before, Phoebe's card had only checked one dollar and five cents, which represented two persons' work. Such being the case, how could I expect to grow sufficiently skilful and expeditious to earn enough to keep body and soul together in the brief apprenticeship I had looked forward to? Unable to sleep, I was up an hour earlier than usual, and after I had breakfasted—again by the courtesy of the matron—I was off to work long before the working-day began.
I had thought to be the first arrival, but I was not. A girl was already bending over her paste-pot, and the revelers of the "Ladies' Moonlight Pleasure Club" came straggling in by twos and threes. Some of the weary dancers had dropped to sleep, still wearing their ball-gowns and slippers and bangles and picture-hats, their faces showing ghastly white and drawn in the mote-ridden sunbeams that fell through the dirty windows. Others were busy doffing Cinderella garments, which rites were performed with astounding frankness in the open spaces of the big loft.
"Oh, Henrietta, you had ought to been there," Georgiana gushed, dropping her lace-trimmed petticoats about her feet and struggling to unhook her corsets. "It was grand, but I'm tired to death; and oh, dear! I've another blow-out to-night, and the 'Clover Leaf' to-morrow night!" With a weary yawn, the society queen departed with her finery.
"You didn't go to the ball?" I suggested to the girl addressed as Henrietta, and whom I now recalled as one who had worked frantically all the day before.
"Me? No. I don't believe in dancing," she replied, without looking up. "Our church's down on it. I came early to get ahead with my order. You can do more work when there's not so many round."
Such strict conformity to her religious scruples, combined with such pathetic industry, seemed to augur well for the superior worth of this tall, blonde, blue-eyed girl. I was anxious to make a friend of her, and accordingly proffered my services until Phoebe should come to claim me. She accepted gladly, and for the first time looked up and rewarded me with a smile. I caught a glimpse of an unprepossessing countenance—despite rather good features and fine hair—the most striking characteristics of which were a missing front tooth and lips that hung loose and colorless.
As we worked, the conversation became cordial. She inquired my name, and I repeated the plain, homely Scotch-Irish cognomen that had been handed down to me by my forefathers.
"Why don't you get a pretty name?" she asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. "All the girls do it when they come to the factory to work. It don't cost no more to have a high-sounding name."
Much interested, I protested, half in fun, that I didn't know any name to take, and begged her to suggest one. She was silent for a moment.
"Well, last night," she went on—"last night I was reading a story about two girls that was both mashed on the same feller. He was rich and they was poor and worked, and one of them was called 'Rose Fortune.'"
"That's a very pretty name," I remarked.
"Isn't it, though? Rose Fortune—ever so much prettier than your own. Say, why don't you take it, and I'll begin calling you by it right away."
"And what's your name?" I ventured.
"Mine? Oh, mine's Henrietta Manners; only," she added hastily—"only that's my real name. I was born with it. Now most of the girls got theirs out of story-books. Georgiana Trevelyan and Goldy Courtleigh and Gladys Carringford and Angelina Lancaster and Phoebe Arlington—them girls all got theirs out of stories. But mine's my own. You see," and she drew near that no other ear might hear the secret of her proud birth—"you see, Manners was my mother's name, and she ran away and married my papa against her rich father's wishes. He was a banker. I mean mama's papa was a banker, but my papa was only a poor young gentleman. So grandfather cut her off without a cent in his will, but left everything to me if I would take the name of Manners."
The heroine of this strange romance stopped for breath, and if I had cherished any doubts of the truth of her story in the beginning, at least I was sure now that she believed it all herself; one glance into her steady blue eyes, in which a telltale moisture was already gathering, was proof of that.
"No, indeed," continued Miss Manners: "I haven't always been a working-girl. I used to go to boarding-school. I thought I'd be a governess or something, and once I tried to learn bookkeeping, but my eyes give out, and the figures mixed up my brain so, and then I got sick and had to come to this box-factory. But I'm the first Manners that ever worked."
I was now thoroughly ashamed of my first unjust suspicions that Henrietta might not be strictly truthful, and I inquired with sincere interest as to the fate of her ill-starred family.
"All dead and sleeping in our family vault," she replied wistfully. "But don't let us talk anything more about it. I get so worked up and mad when I talk about the Mannerses and the way they treated me and my poor parents!"
The threatened spell with Henrietta's nerves was averted by a sudden turning on of the power, and the day's work began. Phoebe did not appear to claim me, and I worked away as fast as I could to help swell Henrietta's dividends.
"I guess you can stay with her the rest of the day," Annie Kinzer said, stopping at the table. "The 'Moonlight Maids' must have been too much for Phoebe. Guess she won't show up to-day."
Henrietta was naturally delighted with the arrangement, which would add a few pennies to her earnings. "I only made sixty cents yesterday, and I worked like a dog," she remarked. "It was a bad day for everybody. We ought to make more than a dollar to-day. Phoebe says you're a hustler."
Our job was that of finishing five hundred ruching-boxes. Henrietta urged me frequently to hurry, as we were away behind with the order. I soon discovered that for all her Manners blood and alleged gentle breeding, she was a harder taskmaster than the good-natured but plebeian Phoebe. Her obvious greed for every moment of my time, for every possible effort of my strength and energy, I gladly excused, however, when she revealed the fact that all her surplus earnings went toward the support of a certain mission Sunday-school in which she was a teacher. The conversation drifted from church matters to my own personal affairs.
"Isn't it awful lonesome living alone in a room?"
"How did you know I lived in a room?" I inquired in surprise, with the uncomfortable feeling that I had been the subject of ill-natured gossip.
"Oh, Annie Kinzer told me. Say, I wouldn't tell her anything about my affairs. She's an awful clack."
We were silent for a moment, while I wondered if Henrietta, if Annie Kinzer, if any girl in all the world could ever guess how lonely I had been every moment since I had come to this great city to work and to live. Then came the unexpected.
"Wouldn't you like to come and room with me?"
"With you?" I was half pleased, half doubtful.
"Yes. I've got plenty of room."
"Perhaps I couldn't afford it."
"Yes, you can. I don't put on style. It won't cost us more than a dollar and a half a week for each—rent, eating, and everything else. I was thinking, as you're a learner, it will be a long time before you can make much, and you'd be glad to go halvers with somebody. Two can always live cheaper than one."
A dollar and a half a week! That was indeed cheaper than I had been living. I had something less than two dollars in my purse, and pay-day, for me, was still a week off.
And so I accepted the proposition, and by lunch-time the news was all over the factory that the new girl was to be Henrietta's room-mate. Annie Kinzer—everybody, in fact—approved, except, possibly, Emma. Emma was a homely, plainly dressed girl who had worked ten years here at Springer's. She bore the reputation of being a prudey and a kill-joy. Thus far she had never deigned to look at me, but now she took occasion to pass the time of day when we met at the water-faucet, and asked, in a doubtful tone, how long I had known Henrietta Manners.
Meanwhile we "cornered" and "tissued" and "laced" and "labeled." Higher and higher grew our pasteboard castle, which we built as children pile up brightly colored blocks. At eleven Henrietta sent me below for trimmings.
"How do you like your job?" asked the young fellow who filled my order. This was strictly conventional, and I responded in kind. While Charlie cut tapes and counted labels, he made the most of his opportunity to chat. Dismissing, with brief comment, the weather and the peculiar advantages and disadvantages of box-making as a trade, he diplomatically steered the talk along personal and social lines by suggesting, with a suppressed sigh, the probability that I should not always be a box-maker. I replied heartily that I hoped not, which precipitated another question: "Is the day set yet?" My amused negative to the query, and intimation that I had no "steady," were gratefully received, and warranted the suggestion that, as a matter of course, I liked to go to balls.
"My pleasure club has a blow-out next Sunday night," he remarked significantly, as I gathered up my trimmings and departed.
During my five minutes' absence the most exciting event of the day had occurred. Adrienne, one of the strippers, had just been carried away, unconscious, with two bleeding finger-stumps. In an unguarded moment the fingers had been cut off in her machine. Although their work does not allow them to stop a moment, her companions were all loud in sympathy for this misfortune, which is not rare. Little Jennie, the unfortunate girl's turner-in and fellow-worker for two years, wept bitterly as she wiped away the blood from the long, shining knife and prepared to take the place of her old superior, with its increased wage of five dollars and a half a week. The little girl had been making only three dollars and a quarter, and so, as Henrietta remarked, "It's a pretty bad accident that don't bring good to somebody."
"Did they take her away in a carriage?" Henrietta asked of Goldy Courtleigh, who had stopped a moment to rest at our table.
"Well, I should say! What's the use of getting your fingers whacked off if you can't get a carriage-ride out of it?"
"Yes, and that's about the only way you'd ever squeeze a carriage-ride out of this company," commented Henrietta. "Now I've two lady-friends who work in mills where a sick headache and a fainting-spell touch the boss for a carriage-ride every time!"
The order on which we worked was, like most of the others on the floor that day, for late-afternoon delivery. Our ruching-boxes had to be finished that day, even though it took every moment till six or even seven o'clock. Saturday being what is termed a "short-day," one had to work with might and main in order to leave at half-past four. This Henrietta was very anxious to do, partly because she had her Easter shopping to do, and partly because this was the night I was to be installed in my new quarters. Lunch-time found us still far behind. Therefore we did not stop to eat, but snatched bites of cake and sandwich as hunger dictated, and convenience permitted, all the while pasting and labeling and taping our boxes. Nor were we the only toilers obliged to forgo the hard-earned half-hour of rest.
The awakening thunder of the machinery burst gratefully on our ears. It meant that the last half of the weary day had begun. How my blistered hands ached now! How my swollen feet and ankles throbbed with pain! Every girl limped now as she crossed the floor with her towering burden, and the procession back and forth between machines and tables began all over again. Lifting and carrying and shoving; cornering and taping and lacing—it seemed as though the afternoon would never wear to an end.
The whole great mill was now charged with an unaccustomed excitement—an excitement which had in it something of solemnity. There was no sign of the usual mirth and hilarity which constitute the mill's sole attraction. There was no singing—not even Angelina's "Fatal Wedding." No exchange of stories, no sallies. Each girl bent to her task with a fierce energy that was almost maddening in its intensity.
Blind and dizzy with fatigue, I peered down the long, dusty aisles of boxes toward the clock above Annie Kinzer's desk. It was only two. Every effort, human and mechanical, all over the great factory, was now strained almost to the breaking-point. How long can this agony last? How long can the roar and the rush and the throbbing pain continue until that nameless and unknown something snaps like an overstrained fiddle-string and brings relief? The remorseless clock informed us that there were two hours more of this torture before the signal to "clean up"—a signal, however, which is not given until the last girl has finished her allotted task. At half-past two it appeared hopeless even to dream of getting out before the regular six o'clock.
The head foreman rushed through the aisles and bawled to us to "hustle for all we were worth," as customers were all demanding their goods.
"My God! ain't we hustling?" angrily shouted Rosie Sweeny, a pretty girl at the next table, who supplied most of the profanity for our end of the room. "God Almighty! how I hate Easter and Christmas-time! Oh, my legs is 'most breaking," and with that the overwrought girl burst into a passionate tirade against everybody, the foreman included, and all the while she never ceased to work.
There were not many girls in the factory like Rosie. Hers were the quickest fingers, the sharpest tongue, the prettiest face. She was scornful, impatient, and passionate—qualities not highly developed in her companions, and which in her case foreboded ill if one believed Annie Kinzer's prophecy: "That Rosie Sweeny 'll go to the bad yet, you mark my words."
Three o'clock, a quarter after, half-past! The terrific tension had all but reached the breaking-point. Then there rose a trembling, palpitating sigh that seemed to come from a hundred throats, and blended in a universal expression of relief. In her clear, high treble Angelina began the everlasting "Fatal Wedding." That piece of false sentiment had now a new significance. It became a song of deliverance, and as the workers swelled the chorus, one by one, it meant that the end of the day's toil was in sight.
By four o'clock the last box was done. Machines became mute, wheels were stilled, and the long black belts sagged into limp folds. Every girl seized a broom or a scrub-pail, and hilarity reigned supreme while we swept and scrubbed for the next half-hour, Angelina and her chorus singing all the while endless stanzas of the "Fatal Wedding."
Henrietta sent me for a fresh pail of water, which I got from the faucet in the toilet-room; and as I filled my bucket I made a mental inventory of my fellow-toilers' wardrobes. Hanging from rows of nails on all sides were their street garments—a collection of covert-cloth jackets, light tan automobile coats, black silk box-coats trimmed in white lace, raglans, and every other style of fashionable wrap that might be cheaply imitated. Sandwiched among the street garments were the trained skirts and evening bodices of the "Moonlight Maids" of the night before, and which were to be again disported at some other pleasure-club festivity that Easter evening, now drawing near. Along the walls were ranged the high-heeled shoes and slippers, a bewildering display of gilt buckles and velvet bows; each pair waiting patiently for the swollen, tired feet of their owner to carry them away to the ball. The hats on the shelf above were in strict accord with the gowns and the cloaks and the foot-gear—a gorgeous assortment of Easter millinery, wherein the beflowered and beplumed picture-hat predominated.
I hurried back with my bucket of water, hoping in my heart that the pleasure their wearers got out of this finery might be as great as the day's work which earned it was long and hard. And so indeed it must have been, if Henrietta was any authority on such questions.
"I love nice clothes, even if I do have to work hard to get them," she remarked, as we turned into Bleecker Street a few minutes later, four one-dollar bills safely tucked away in her stocking. "But say, you ought to see my new hat. It's elegant," and drawing my arm through hers, my new room-mate hurried me through the Saturday-evening crowd of homeward-bound humanity.
WHEREIN I WALK THROUGH DARK AND DEVIOUS WAYS WITH HENRIETTA MANNERS
It had been an ideal day for March—a day touched with pale-yellow sunshine in which one felt the thrill and the promise of the springtime, despite the chill east wind.
Into the murky, evil-smelling squalor of Thompson Street this shy primrose sunshine had poured in the earlier part of the afternoon; but, being a north-and-south thoroughfare, it had all filtered out by half-past four, only to empty itself with increased warmth and glory into the east-and-west cross-streets, leaving Thompson dim and cold by comparison when Henrietta Manners and I emerged from Springer's.
Henrietta wore a dusty picture-hat of black velvet with a straight ostrich feather and streamers of soiled white tulle, and a shabby golf-cape of blue and white check which was not quite long enough to conceal the big brass safety-pins with which her trained skirt was tucked up, and which she had forgotten to remove until we had gone some yards down the street. While we stopped long enough for her to perform this most important sartorial detail, my eye traversed the street before us, which with a gentle descent drops downward and stretches away toward the south—a long, dim, narrow vista, broken at regular intervals by brilliant shafts of gold streaming from the sunlit cross-streets, and giving to the otherwise squalid brick-walled canyon the appearance of a gay checkered ribbon. But if the March sunshine had deserted Thompson Street, the March winds still claimed it as their own. Up and down they had swept all day, until the morning mud on the cobblestones had been long dried up and turned to dust, which now swirled along, caught up in innumerable little whirlwinds that went eddying down the street.
Grabbing up her demi-train in her bare hand, Henrietta and I also eddied down the street and were lost to view for a few moments in the whirlwind which struck us at the crowded corner of Bleecker Street.
This whirlwind was the result partly of physical and partly of human forces. For it was Saturday night, and life was running at flood-tide all over the great city. Always tempestuous, always disturbed with the passion and pain and strife of its struggle to maintain the ground it had gained, never for one brief moment calm, even at its lowest ebb—now, on this last night of the long, weary week, all the currents and counter-currents of the worker's world were suddenly released. At the stroke of bell, at the clang of deep-mouthed gong, at the scream of siren whistle, the sluice-gates were lifted from the great human reservoirs of factory and shop and office, and their myriad toilers burst forth with the cumulative violence of six days' restraint.
It was a shabby carnival of nations that jostled one another at this windy corner—Italian, Spanish, German, Slav, Jew, Greek, with a preponderance of Irish and "free-born" Americans. The general air was one of unwonted happiness and freedom. The atmosphere of holiday liberty was vibrant with the expectation of Saturday-night abandon to fun and frolic or wild carousal.
For "the ghost had walked" through the workaday world that day, and everybody had his "envelop" in his pocket. It is a pleasant sensation to feel the stiff-cornered envelop tucked safely away in your vest pocket, or in the depths of your stocking, where Henrietta had hidden hers safe out of the reach of the wily pickpocket, who, she told me, was lurking at every corner and sneaking through every crowd on that Saturday evening, which was also Easter Eve.
Easter Eve! I had almost forgotten the fact which accounted for this more than usual activity on the part of the hurrying crowds, and for the unmistakable holiday air which Bleecker Street displayed. As far as we could see, lined up on both sides of the curb were the pushcart peddlers, and at every step a sidewalk fakir, all crying their Easter wares.
Henrietta lingered first about one pushcart, then about another, opening her gaudy side-bag, then shutting it resolutely and marching on, determined not to succumb to the temptation to squander her hard-earned pennies. She succeeded admirably until we came upon a picturesque Italian and his wife who were doing a flourishing business from a pushcart piled high with sacred images. Henrietta showed a lively interest in the cut prices at which they were going: ten cents for St. Peter in a scarlet robe and golden sandals; fifteen cents for St. John in purple; and only twenty-five for the Blessed Virgin in flowing blue clasping the Holy Babe.
They were "dirt-cheap," Henrietta declared, as we watched the plaster casts pass over the heads of the crowd, out of which by and by emerged our shopmate, little Angela, clasping a Madonna under her arm and counting her change.
The three of us resumed our homeward walk together, without any comment until Angela had satisfied herself about the correctness of her change.
"What a slop you are!" remarked Henrietta, as her critical eye swept over the undeveloped little figure in the long, greasy black-taffeta coat, which, flapping open in front, disclosed the pasty surface of a drabbled blue skirt. "Why don't you never turn your skirt, Angela?"
"Oh, what's the dif?" replied Angela. "There ain't no fellows going to look at me any more now."
This reply, commonplace enough, might have passed unnoticed had there not been a note of tragedy in her deep contralto voice.
"Why, what's the matter?" I asked.
"Don't you know?" she demanded, scowling at Henrietta's silly, vacant "tee-hee."
"Know? Know what?" I asked.
"That I'm a grass-widow."
"A grass-widow!" I echoed in astonishment, and looked upon the childish creature in sheer unbelief—for child I had always considered her. "Why, how old are you, anyway, Angela?"
"Fifteen—I mean I'm 'most fifteen."
"And you're really married!" I exclaimed again, quite aghast and altogether innocent of the construction which Angela immediately put upon the qualifying adverb.
"Well, if you don't believe me look at that!" she cried, and stuck out a tiny, dirty hand, with finger-nails worn to the quick, and decorated with a gold band broad enough and heavy enough to have held a woman ten times Angela's weight and size in the bands of indissoluble matrimony; "I was married for fair, and I was married lawful. A priest did it."
"Oh, I didn't mean to question that," I hastened to apologize with some confusion. "Only you seemed so very young, I thought you were just joking me."
"Well, it's no joke to be married and have a baby, specially when you've got to s'port it," returned the girl, her lips still pouting.
"And you've a baby, too—you!"
The bedraggled little prima donna nodded; the pout on the lips blossomed into a smile, and a look of infinite tenderness transformed the tired, dark little face. "It's up to the creche—that's where I'm going now. The ladies keeps it awful good for me."
"And it's such a lovely baby, too!" declared Henrietta, softly. "I seen it once."
"She's cute; there's no lie 'bout that," assented the little mother. "Look what I bought her—here, you hold this Peter a minute—Henrietta, just hang on to the Holy Virgin," and thrusting them into our hands, she opened the box under her arm and drew forth a gaily painted hen that clucked and laid a painted egg, to the uproarious delight of Henrietta.
Henrietta meanwhile had begun counting the change in her side-bag.
"I don't never like to break a bill unless I've got to," she remarked, returning the Holy Virgin to Angela's arms; "but I'm going to have one of them chickens too," and away she went after the fakir. A moment later she emerged from the crowd with a little brown box under her arm, and we three continued our walk westward along Bleecker, dropping little Angela at the corner of the street which was to lead her to the day-nursery where she would pick up her baby and carry it home.
"That was a 'fatal wedding' for fair, wasn't it?" I remarked, as my eyes followed the little figure.
But my companion paid no attention to my attempt to be facetious, if indeed she heard the remark at all. She seemed to be deep in a brown study, and several times I caught her watching me narrowly from the corner of her eye. I was already beginning to have some misgivings as to the temperamental fitness of my strange "learner" and new-found friend as a steady, day-in-and-day-out person with whom to live and eat and sleep. And this feeling increased with every block we covered, for by and by I found myself studying Henrietta in the same furtive manner as she was evidently studying me.
At last, when we had exchanged the holiday gaiety and the sunshine of Bleecker Street for a dark, noisome side-street, she broke out explosively:
"Hope to God you ain't going to turn out the way my last room-mate did!"
"Why? What did she do?"
"Went crazy," came the laconic reply, and she shivered and drew the old golf-cape more closely about her shoulders; for the damp of the dark, silent tenements on either side seemed to strike to the marrow. Something in her manner seemed to say, "Ask no more questions," but nevertheless I pursued the subject.
"Went crazy! How?"
"I d'know; she just went sudden crazy. She come to Springer's one day just like you, and she said how she was wanting to find a place to board cheap; and she was kind of down in the mouth, and she come home with me; and all of a sudden in the night I woke up with her screamin' and going on something fearful, and I run down and got the Dago lady in the basement to come up, and her man run for the police. They took her away to the lock-up in the hurry-up wagon, and the next day they said she was crazy,—clean crazy,—and she's in the crazy-house over on the Island now."
"What island?" I asked, not with any desire to know this minor detail, but because I was too disturbed for the moment to make any other comment. It seemed to Henrietta, however, a most senseless question, for she remarked rather testily:
"Why, just the Island, where they send all the crazy folks, and the drunks, and the thieves and murderers, and them that has smallpox."
"Mercy! what an awful place it must be!" I cried. "And that's where the poor girl went?"
"That's where she went—say, tell me honest now, didn't you run away?"
"Run away! Where from?"
"Run away from home—now didn't you?"
"Mercy, no! What put such an idea as that in your head?" I asked, laughing.
"Fanny Harley did."
"Who's Fanny Harley?"
"She's the girl they took to the crazy-house."
"But," I argued, "is that any reason for you to suppose that I ran away from home too?"
"Yep, it is. You're ever so much like Fanny Harley. You talk just alike, and you've got just the same notions she had, from what I can make; and she did run away from home. She told me so. She lived up-state somewhere, and was off a farm just like you; and—"
"But I'm not a farmer, and never was," I put in.
"Why, you told me yourself you was born in the country, didn't you?" and I saw there was no use trying to point out to Henrietta the difference between farmers and those born in the country, both of which were terms of contempt in her vocabulary. We were still threading the maze of strange, squalid streets which was to lead us eventually to the former brief abiding-place of Fanny Harley; and, filled with curiosity regarding my own resemblance to my unfortunate predecessor, I revived the subject by asking carelessly:
"How is it I talk and act that makes me like Fanny Harley?"
"Well, you 've got a kind of high-toned way of talking," she explained. "I don't mind the way you talk, though,—using big words and all that. That ain't none of our business, I tell the girls; but you do walk so funny and stand so funny, that it is all I can do to keep from bu'stin' out laughing to see you. And the other girls says it's the same with them, but I told them it was because you was just from the country, and that farmers all walk the same way. But really, Rose,—you're getting used to that name, ain't you?—you ought to get yourself over it as quick as you can; you ain't going to have no lady-friends in the factory if you're going to be queer like that."
"But I walk as I always did. How else should I walk? How do I walk that makes me so funny?" I asked, mortified at the thought of my having been the butt of secret ridicule. Henrietta was cordial in her reply.
"You walk too light," she explained; "you don't seem to touch the ground at all when you go along, and you stand so straight it makes my back ache to watch you."
Then my mentor proceeded to correct my use and choice of diction.
"And what makes you say 'lid' when you mean a cover? Why, it just about kills us girls to hear you say 'lid.'"
"But," I remonstrated, aggravated by her silly "tee-hee" into defense of my English, "why shouldn't I say 'lid' if I want to? It means just the same as cover."
"Well, if it mean the same, why don't you say 'cover'?" my "learner" retorted, with ill-disguised anger that I should question her authority; and I dropped the subject, and the remainder of the walk was continued in silence.
It was growing more and more apparent that I had not made a wise selection in my room-mate, but it seemed too late to back out now—at least until I had given her a trial of several days.
I felt as though I had obtained, as if by magic, a wonderfully illuminating insight into her nature and character during this short walk from the factory. I had thought her at the work-table a kind-hearted, honest toiler, a bit too visionary, perhaps, to accord with perfect veracity, and woefully ignorant, but with an ignorance for which I could feel nothing but sorrow and sympathy, as the inevitable result of the hard conditions of her life and environment. But now I recognized with considerable foreboding, not only all this, but much more besides. Henrietta Manners, that humble, under-fed, miserable box-maker, was the very incarnation of bigotry and intolerance, one by whom any idea, or any act, word, or occurrence out of the ordinary rut set by box-factory canons of taste and judgment, must be condemned with despotic severity. And yet, in the face of all these unpleasant reflections upon poor Henrietta's unbeautiful mental characteristics, I felt a certain shamefaced gratitude toward the kind heart which I knew still beat under that shabby golf-cape.
Meanwhile, Henrietta had again lapsed into a silent, sullen mood, as she pitched along in the nervous, jerky, heavy-footed gait which she had urged me to emulate, and which I thought so hideous. I did not know then, but I do know now, that such gait is invariably a characteristic of the constitution in which there is not the proper coordination of muscular effort. In the light of knowledge gained in later years, I can now see in that long, slouching, shuffling figure, in that tallow-colored face with the bloodless, loose lips and the wandering, mystic eyes of periwinkle blue—I can see in that girl-face framed by a trashy picture-hat, and in that girl-form wrapped in the old golf-cape, one of the earth's unfortunates; a congenital failure; a female creature doomed from her mother's womb—physically, mentally, and morally doomed.
I was, however, on this memorable Easter Eve most happily innocent of my Lombroso and my Mantagazza, else I had not been walking home with Henrietta Manners, in all the confidence of an unsophisticated country-girl. So much confidence did I have in my shop-mate that I did not yet know the name of the street on the West Side where my future home was, nor did I know any of the strange, dark, devious paths by which she led me through a locality that, though for the most part eminently respectable, is dotted here and there, near the river-front, with some of the worst plague-spots of moral and physical foulness to be found in New York.
In later and more prosperous years I have several times walked into Thompson Street, and from that as a starting-point tried to retrace our walk of that night, bordering along old Greenwich Village, but as well have tried to unravel the mazes of the Cretan Labyrinth.
The last westward street we traversed, dipping under the trellis of an elevated railroad, led straight into a lake of sunset fire out of which the smoking funnels of a giant steamship lying at her dock rose dark and majestic upon the horizon.
A little cry of admiration escaped me at sight of the splendid picture, and I hoped secretly that our way might continue to the water's edge; but instead, reaching the line of the elevated, we turned in and followed the old, black street above which the noisy trains ran. The street itself presented the appearance of a long line of darkened warehouses, broken occasionally by a dismal-looking dwelling, through the uncurtained windows of which we could see slattern housewives busy getting supper.
It was the most miserable and squalid of all the miserable and squalid streets I had thus far seen, and it had the additional disadvantage of being practically deserted of everything save the noise and smoke overhead. There were no foot-passengers, no human sounds. It was all so hideous and fearsome that after five minutes' walk I was not surprised to see Henrietta select the most wretched of all the wretched houses as the one we should enter. As we climbed the high stoop, I could see, through the interstices of rusted ironwork that had once been handsome balusters, the form of an Italian woman sitting in the basement window beneath, nursing a baby at her breast.
"That's the lady what come up to help hold Fanny Harley," my room-mate remarked as we passed inside.
INTRODUCING HENRIETTA'S "SPECIAL GENTLEMAN-FRIEND"
"Say! ain't you got no special gentleman-friend?"
Henrietta's voice, breaking a pregnant silence, startled me so that I nearly jumped off the empty soap-box where for some minutes I had sat watching her bend over a smoking skillet of frying fat.
An answer was not to be given unadvisedly, such was the moral effect of the question. It hadn't been asked in a casual way, but showed, by its explosive form of utterance, that it was the result not so much of a pent-up curiosity as of a careful speculation as to the manner in which I would receive it. So I tried to look unconscious, and at this critical juncture the thunder of an elevated train came adventitiously to my rescue and gave me a few moments in which to consider what I should reply. And as I considered unconsciously my eye took in an inventory of the room. The heavily carved woodwork hinted of the fact that it had once been a lady's bedchamber in the bygone days when this was a fashionable quarter of New York, and its spaciousness and former elegance now served rather to increase the squalor as well as to accentuate the barrenness of its furnishings. The latter consisted of two wooden boxes, one of which I sat upon; an empty sugar-barrel, with a board laid across the top; a broken-down bed in an uncurtained alcove; a very large, substantial-looking trunk, iron-bound and brass-riveted; and last, but not least, a rusty stove, now red-hot, which might well have been the twin sister of my own "Little Lottie" at the ill-fated Fourteenth-street house. This stove, connected with the flue by a small pipe, fitted into what had once been a beautiful open fireplace, but which was now walled up with broken bricks, and surmounted by a mantel of Italian marble sculptured with the story of Prometheus's boon to mankind, and supported on either end by caryatides in the shape of vestal virgins bearing flaming brands in their hands. Overhead the ceiling showed great patches of bare lath, where the plaster had fallen away, and the uncarpeted floor was strewn with bread-crumbs and marked by a trail of coal-siftings from the stove to a closet-door from which the fire was replenished. The door to the closet was gone, and in its recess a pair of trousers hung limply, while Henrietta's scant wardrobe was ranged along the black-painted wall outside. The long, cobweb-hung windows, bare of blind or curtain, showed a black-mirrored surface against the batten shutters.
All these details I could descry but dimly by the light of the smoking oil-lamp that sat on the mantelshelf above the stove, and which cast a ghastly light upon a row of empty bottles—the sole burden of the once spotless, but now sadly soiled, vestal virgins.
Henrietta was bending over the smoking skillet, with the lamp-light falling across her pale face. As she boiled the coffee and fried the eggs I studied her profile sketched against the blue, smoky background, and tried in vain to grasp the secret of its fleeting, evanescent beauty. For beautiful Henrietta was—beautiful with a beauty quite her own and all the more potent because of its very indefinableness. I watched her as one horribly fascinated,—that high, wide white forehead, that weak chin, those soft, tremulous lips, on which a faint smile would so often play, and those great, wide eyes of blue that now looked purple in the lamp-light. And then, gradually, I saw, as I watched, an expression I had never seen there before; the wavering suggestion of the smile left the lips and they fell apart, loose and bloodless, with a glimpse of the missing front tooth. It was an expression that lasted but the fraction of a second, but it stamped her whole countenance with something sinister.
Then Henrietta lifted the eggs, carried the coffee-pot across to the table, which was none other than the board-capped barrel, and went back for the lamp. All these things she insisted upon doing herself, just as she had stubbornly refused to allow me to help with the cooking of the supper.
Setting the lamp down upon the improvised table, she threw open one of the shutters to let in a breath of fresh air, and as she did so the room was filled with the roar and dust of the elevated train which passed so close to our windows, and after it came a cold draft of air caused by the suction of the cars. Henrietta closed the window and returned to the table.
Then I answered her question: "Well, that depends upon what you mean by gentleman-friend," I said.
"I mean just what I said," replied Henrietta, sliding an egg upon her plate and passing the remaining one to me. "I mean a special gentleman-friend."
"Well, no; I guess I haven't. I used to know lots of boys in the country where I lived, but there isn't one of them I could call my special gentleman-friend, and I don't know any men here." I uttered this speech carefully, so as not to imply any criticism of Henrietta's use of the expression "gentleman-friend," nor to call down upon my own head her criticism for using any other than the box-factory vernacular in discussing these delicate amatory affairs.
"Oh, go and tell that to your grandmother!" she retorted, with a sly little laugh. "Don't none of the girls there have gentlemen-friends, or is farmers so different that they never stand gentlemen-friends to them?"
"Oh, dear me, yes!" I answered hastily, trying to avoid the unpleasant double entendre, and choosing to accept it in its strictly explicit phase. "Why, certainly, the girls get married there every day. There are hardly any old maids in my part of the country. They get engaged almost as soon as they are out of short dresses, and the first thing you know, they are married and raising families." Then I added, "but have you got a gentleman-friend yourself?"
"Yep," she answered, nodding and pouring out the coffee; "I have a very particular gentleman-friend what's been keeping company with me for nearly a year, off and on."
"Oh!" I cried, eager to turn the conversation toward Henrietta's personal affairs instead of my own, which I felt she completely misconstrued. "Do tell me about him; what is his name—and are you engaged to him yet?"
"My! ain't you fresh, though?" she said; but there was cordiality in the rebuff. "I met him at the mission where I teach Sundays," she went on. "He's brother Mason, and he's the Sunday-school superintendent. He give me all that perfume on the mantel," and she pointed a dripping knife toward the row of empty bottles.
"Why, is he in the perfumery business?" I asked innocently, my eyes ranging over the heterogeneous collection on the mantel. Henrietta took the remark as exceedingly funny, for she immediately fell into a paroxysm of tittering, choking over a mouthful of food before she could attain gravity enough to answer.
"Lord! no; you do ask the funniest questions!"
Thus checked, I did not press for further information as to brother Mason's vocation, but proceeded to satisfy my hunger, which was not diminished by the unappetizing appearance of the food on the barrel.
It was a matter of great surprise to me to see how little Henrietta ate, and I was likewise ashamed of my own voracious appetite. Henrietta noticed this and frowned ominously.
"God! but you do eat!" she commented frankly, poising her knife in air.
"I'm hungry. I've worked hard to-day," I replied with dignity.
"Maybe you won't eat so much, though, after a while," she said hopefully.
"Maybe not," I agreed. "But you, Henrietta—you are not eating anything!"
"Me? Oh, I'm all right. I'm eating as much as I ever do. The works takes away my hunger. If it didn't, I don't know how I'd get along. If I eat as much as you, I'd be likely to starve to death. I couldn't make enough to feed me. When I first begun to work in the factory I'd eat three or four pieces of bread across the loaf, and potatoes and meat, and be hungry for things besides; but after a while you get used to being hungry for so long, you couldn't eat if you had it to eat."
"How long have you been working?" I ventured.
Henrietta put her cup on the table and shot a suspicious glance at me before she answered:
"Oh, off and on, and for five or six years, ever since my uncle died. He was my guardian—that's his house up there."
I looked in the direction of Henrietta's pointed finger to a cheap chromolithograph that was tacked on the wall between the windows and immediately over the barrel where we were eating. I recognized it at once as a reproduction of a familiar scene showing a castle on the Rhine. I had seen the same picture many times, once as a supplement with a Sunday newspaper. That this stately pile of green and yellow variegated stones should be the residence of Henrietta's uncle and guardian seemed obviously but a bit of girlish fun, of a piece with her earlier talk regarding her aristocratic ancestry; for by this time I had construed that strange story into a hoax that was never meant to be taken seriously.
But one glance now at Henrietta's face showed me my mistake. It was plainly to be seen that she had come to believe every word of what she had told me.
My eye had traveled to the row of garments on the pegs behind the door and had rested with curiosity upon a "lassie" bonnet and cloak. Henrietta did not wait for the question on my lips.
"Them's my adjutant's uniform," she said, with a touch of pride. "You didn't know I used to be an adjutant in the Salvation Army, did you?"
I shook my head.
"Well, I was, all right. Adjutant Faith Manners, that's what I was," and rising, she limped across the floor, and burrowing in the depths of the trunk, returned in a moment with an envelop which she handed me with the command to read its contents. The envelop, postmarked "Pittsburg, Pa.," was addressed to Adjutant Faith Manners.
"But how does it come you have two names?" I inquired.
"Well," the girl replied slowly, "I thought as how it sounded better for a professing Christian to have some name like that, than Henrietta. Henrietta is kind of fancy-sounding, specially when you was an adjutant officer and was supposed to have give yourself to Jesus."
I read the letter; it was a curious epistle, written in a beautiful, flowing hand, well worded, and complimenting Adjutant Manners upon her "persistence in the good work for Jesus," and winding up with the offer of a small post, at a salary to be determined later on, in the Pittsburg barracks of the Salvation Army. The name of the writer, which for obvious reasons it is best not to divulge, was that of an officer who, I have since discovered, is well and favorably known in Pittsburg. The whole thing was a bewildering paradox. There was no doubt of its being a bona-fide letter, nor of Adjutant Faith Manners and my room-mate being one and the same person. And yet, how explain the ludicrous inconsistency of such an experience in the life of such a girl?
I had opened my mouth to ask some question to this end, when we started as a heavy step resounded in the hallway outside. Then the latch rattled, the door swung open, and a thick-set, burly, bearded man stood upon the threshold. I screamed before I noticed that Henrietta regarded the new-comer quite as a matter of course.
The man stood in the doorway, evidently surprised for the moment at seeing me there; then, closing the door behind him, he advanced awkwardly, tiptoeing across the floor, and sat down upon the edge of the bed without so much as a word.
"Will you have a cup of coffee, brother Mason?" asked Henrietta, shaking the pot to determine whether its contents would warrant the invitation.
"I don't care if I do, sister Manners," returned brother Mason, removing his hat as if it were an afterthought, and drawing forth a large red handkerchief with which he mopped his forehead and thick red neck.
"This is my lady-friend, Rose Fortune," said Henrietta as she drained the coffee-pot, and nodding first to the visitor, then to myself; "my gentleman-friend, brother Mason."
Brother Mason had risen and tiptoed forward, his hands thrust into the bulging pockets of his overcoat, whence he proceeded gravely to draw forth and deposit upon the barrel-top a heterogeneous love-offering, as follows: two oranges; a box of mustard; a small sack of nutmegs; a box of ground pepper; a package of allspice; a box containing three dozen bouillon capsules; a bottle of the exact size and label as the innumerable empty vessels on the mantel; a package of tea done up in fancy red-and-gold paper; and, last, a large paper sack of pulverized coffee.
Henrietta now handed a cup to the donor of these gifts, which he accepted meekly and carried on tiptoe back to his place on the edge of the bed.
Brother Mason drank his coffee with a great deal of unnecessary noise, while Henrietta gathered up the dishes, after again rebuffing me almost rudely for presuming to offer my services. Thus there was nothing left for me to do, apparently, but to sit on the soap-box and look at brother Mason, who regarded me in rather sheepish fashion over the top of his cup.
I judged him to be a good-natured man on the near side of fifty. His close-cropped hair was an iron-gray, and his stubby beard and mustache a fierce red, the ferocity of which was tempered by the mildness of deep-set, small blue eyes. His general appearance would, I thought, have been more in accord with the driver of a beer-truck than anything so comparatively genteel as driving a grocer's wagon—his occupation, I discovered, which explained the source of his offerings to Henrietta. Despite the burliness of brother Mason, there was that about him which rather encouraged confidence than aroused suspicion, although it was difficult to reconcile him with the superintendence of a mission Sunday-school. The latter incongruity had just popped into my mind when he broke the silence by asking in a deep guttural, and with a vigorous nod in my direction as he put down his empty cup:
"Oh, no," I answered, eager to break the embarrassing silence—"oh, no; I'm a Protestant."
"Ha! But you be Irish, ben't you?"
I laughed. "No; American!"
"Ha! Father and mother Irish, mebbe?"
"No, they were American, too; but my great-great-grandfather and-grandmother were Irish."
"Aye, that's it! I knowed you was Irish the minute I seen them red cheeks, eh! sister Manners?" chuckled brother Mason in a rich brogue, rubbing his hands and looking across at my room-mate, who had been apparently oblivious to our conversation, as she washed and wiped the dishes out of a tin basin which I recognized as that from which we had washed our hands and faces after we got home from work. She now fixed the visitor with her periwinkle eyes, and replied severely:
"I ain't got nothing to say against my lady-friend's looks, as you certainly know, brother Mason."
Something in this answer—no doubt, a hint of smothered jealousy—made brother Mason throw his hand to his mouth and duck his head as he darted a sly look toward me. But I met the look with a serious face, and indeed I felt serious enough without getting myself into any imbroglio with this strange pair of lovers.
"You're Irish, I suppose, Mr. Mason?" I asked when he had recovered his gravity after this mirth-provoking incident.
"Me? I'm from County Wicklow, but I ain't no Cat'lic Irish. I'm a Methody. Cat'lic in the old country, Methody here. Got converted twenty years ago at one of them Moody and Sankey meetings—you've heard tell of Moody and Sankey, mebbe? Eh? Ha!"
These latter ejaculations the Catholic apostate repeated alternately and with rhythmic precision as he proceeded to press tobacco into a clay pipe with numerous deft movements of his large red thumb, regarding me fixedly all the while.
"Yes, yes," I repeated many times, but not until he had lighted the pipe and drawn a deep whiff of it did brother Mason choose to regard his question as answered.
"Well, it was them that brought me to the mourners' bench, for fair. It was Moody and Sankey that did the damage; and I've got to say this much for them gentlemen, I've never seen the day I was sorry they did it. I'm the supe of a mission Sunday-school now, meself; and I've done me dirty best to push the gospel news along." Here he turned to Henrietta. "Be your lady-friend coming over to-morrow afternoon, sister Manners?"
"I don't hinder her, nor nobody's, doing what they like!" answered Henrietta, again with that air of severity, not to say iciness, in her manner; and I shifted myself uncomfortably on the box as I met her glance of patient scorn. She had now finished her dish-washing, and seated herself upon the edge of the box, which brother Mason had already appropriated with his large, clumsy bulk.
"Come now, you do care, ye know you care!" he said gruffly, as he threw an arm carelessly across the girl's shoulder and patted her kindly; the scowl immediately left her face and her head dropped upon his brawny, red-shirted breast and snugly settled itself there, much to my embarrassment. Then, between long-drawn whiffs of the rank-smelling pipe, brother Mason descanted upon himself and his achievements, religious, social, financial, and political, with no interruption save frequent fits of choking on the part of poor Henrietta, whom even the clouds of rank smoke could not drive from her position of vantage.
Brother Mason, so he informed me, was not only an Irishman and a Methodist, but a member of Tammany Hall and a not unimportant personage in the warehouses of the wholesale grocers for whom he drove the delivery wagon, and from whom, I now haven't a doubt in the world, he had stolen for the benefit of his lady-love many such an offering of sweet perfume and savory spice as he had carried her that Easter Eve. I found his talk eminently entertaining, with the charm that often goes with the talk of an unlettered person who knows much of life and of men. He was densely ignorant from the schoolmaster's point of view, and openly confessed to an inability to write his name; but his ignorance was refreshing, as the ignorance of man is always refreshing when compared with the ignorance of woman; which fact, it has often appeared to me, is the strongest argument in favor of the general superiority of the male sex. For hidden somewhere within brother Mason's thick, bullet head there seemed to be that primary germ of intelligence which was apparently lacking in the fair head snuggled on his breast. It was therefore with a mingled feeling of relief and regret that, after a couple of hours of conversation, I saw him gently push Henrietta away and announce his departure,—relief from the embarrassment which this open love-making had caused me, and regret that I was once more to be left alone with Henrietta in that dark, cavernous house. It was then after midnight, and Henrietta suggested, as brother Mason drew on his overcoat, that she accompany him as far as the corner saloon, where she wanted to buy a quarter-pint of gin; and they went off together, leaving me alone.
When their resounding footsteps had died away down the stairs, I picked up the lamp and walked about, examining the shadowy corners of the room, peering into the black abyss of the alcove where the unwholesome bed stood, and not neglecting, like the true woman I was, to look underneath and even to poke under it with the handle of a broom. I raised the windows and threw open the batten-shutters, and through the darkness tried to measure the distance to the street below. Not only that, but I also speculated upon being able to climb out upon the railroad tracks, should the worst come to the worst.
What worst? What did I fear? I don't know. I did not exactly know then, and I scarcely know now. It may have been the promptings of what is popularly termed "woman's intuition." No more do I know why I then and there resolved that I should sleep with my shoes and stockings on; and further, if possible, I determined to keep awake through the long night before me.
I closed the windows and returned to a further inspection of the room, stopping before the open trunk to examine some of the many books it contained. One by one I opened and examined the volumes; a few of them were romances of the Laura Jean Libbey school of fiction, but the majority were hymnals inscribed severally on the fly-leaf with the names "Faith Manners," "Hope Manners," "Patience Manners." Across the room the bottles on the mantel shone vaguely in the shadow. I carried the lamp over, and placing it in the little cleared-out space among them, began to examine the bottles with idle curiosity. "Wild Crab Apple," "Jockey Club," "Parma Violet," "Heliotrope," I read on the dainty labels, lifting out the ground-glass corks and smelling the lingering fragrance which yet attached to each empty vial. Of these there must have been two dozen or more.
And there were other bottles, also empty, but not perfume-bottles. Of these others there were more than a dozen. At first I did not quite comprehend the purport of the printing on their labels, and it was not until I had studied some half a dozen of them that the sickening horror of their meaning dawned upon me fully. There was no mistaking them; the language was too unblushingly plain. They were the infamous nostrums of the malpractitioner; and in the light of this loathsome revelation there was but one thing for me to do: I had to get out of that room, and before Henrietta should return; and so, grabbing up my hat and jacket, I rushed in a panic out of the awful place into the midnight blackness of the empty street.
IN WHICH I FIND MYSELF A HOMELESS WANDERER IN THE NIGHT
In making my escape I had not counted upon my chances of meeting Henrietta returning from the saloon. I had thought of nothing but to get as far away as possible from the horror of it all. Dashing headlong down the street, I was going I knew not where, when suddenly Henrietta's vacuous "tee-hee" rang out in the darkness and echoed among the iron girders of the elevated trestle; and, looking ahead of me, I saw her in the light of the corner gas-jet coming toward me, a man on either side of her, and all three evidently in the best of spirits. I sank back into the darkness of a doorway that stood open, motionless until they had passed and their voices had died away.
In the few minutes of waiting, I had collected my wits sufficiently to determine upon a plan of action. I would find my way back to the Jefferson Market, and stay there until daylight, and then go to the Working Girls' Home recommended by the police matron.
But no sooner had I determined on this plan, which was really the only thing I could have done, than I heard women's voices close at hand; and before I could creep out of the doorway, two figures, groping up to it through the darkness, dropped down upon the threshold. They muttered and mumbled to each other for a little while, then their deep breathing told me they had fallen into a doze.
Again and again I had crept out of my hiding-place, looked at the two bowed, crouching figures, which I could see only in vague outline, and then withdrew again into the comparative safety of the black hallway. I hesitated to waken them, and I could not creep over them asleep—not until I heard the low, guttural voice of a drunken man in the darkness above, and the uncertain shuffle of feet feeling their way to the head of the staircase. Then, my heart in my mouth, quite as much for the fear of what was before me as for what was fumbling about in the darkness behind, I came boldly out and stood over the huddled figures. Now I saw that they were old women, very old, and both fast asleep, with their arms locked about each other for protection against the cold. Both were bare-headed and scantily dressed, and each wore a little wisp of gray hair drawn into a button at the back of her head, just as Mrs. Pringle had worn hers. I touched the nearest bundle on the shoulder. She awoke with a start, and peered around at me with a pitiful whimper. I explained that I only wanted to pass, and that she would oblige me very much to allow me to do so.
"You want to git out, do ye, dearie? Well, you jist shall git out," came the rejoinder in a high, quavering voice, and slowly the old woman lifted herself, with many groans and "ouches" for her stiffened joints.
"Dearie! dearie! I thought ye wuz the cop," the old crone went on, as she grasped my arm in a hand whose thinness I could feel through my thin jacket. "A nice arm it is ye have got, and yit ye don't speak as if ye be one of we uns, be you?" The withered hand held me as though in a vise, while I could feel the gin-laden breath of the unfortunate creature as she peered close into my face.
"Please—please let me go!" I whispered, for I could hear the stumbling footsteps within near the bottom of the stairs. "Please let me go! I must go to the drug-store to find a doctor; some one is sick."
"Sure, dearie, sure!" and the thin fingers relaxed their hold. "Do ye know where the drug-store is? and mightn't I make bold enough to ask to go with ye? It's late for a lady to be out, with the streets full of drunks and lazy longshoremen; and I know you be a lady."
I was in a quandary. Naturally I did not want to accept this drunken woman's offer to pilot me, and yet I really had not the heart to offend the old creature, for there was genuine sympathy betrayed in her voice at the mention of sickness. She seemed to take my silence for acceptance, however; and placing her arm on mine, conducted me down the dark street. At the corner we passed under a gas-lamp, when we saw each other distinctly for the first time. She was dark and swarthy, with deep-set black eyes, and her thin, coarse, bristling gray hair, I noticed, was full of wisps of excelsior and grass box-packing. She was about sixty-two or-three, and had a spare, brawny frame with heavy, stooped shoulders. Evidently she had taken just as careful an inventory of my appearance, for we had not gone far before she was giving me all manner of good advice about taking care of myself in a big, wicked city, with repeated asseverations that she always knew a lady when she saw one, and that if I wasn't one of that enviable species, then her name wasn't Mrs. Bridget Reynolds; and the latter being "a proper married woman and the mother of a family all dead now, God rest their souls!" who should know a lady better than she? And why was Mrs. Bridget Reynolds, a proper married and equally proper widowed woman of her reverend years, sitting upon a doorstep at three o'clock of a cold March morning? Och! God bless ye, just a little trouble with the landlord, no work for several weeks, and a recent eviction; a small matter that had often happened before, and was like as not to happen ag'in, God willing! And who was Mrs. Bridget Reynolds's sleeping mate left behind on the doorstep? Divil a bit did Mrs. Bridget Reynolds know about her, only that she had found her that night in the empty warehouse, where she had gone like herself to sleep, among the packing-cases, under the straw and excelsior, which made a bed fit for a queen, and where they might still have been taking their ease had not a heartless cop chased them out, bad luck to him!
Such was the gist of Mrs. Reynolds's discourse. I have not the courage to attempt to transcribe her rich brogue and picturesque phraseology; and even were I able to do so, it could give the reader no adequate idea of the wealth of optimism and cheerfulness that throbbed in her quavering voice. Hers could be a violent tongue, too, as the several men who accosted us on our dark way discovered at their first approach to familiarity; and on one occasion, when a drunken sailor leered up to my side, Mrs. Bridget spat at him like an angry tabby-cat. Somehow, I no longer felt afraid under her protection and guidance.
At last, after a very long walk, we came in sight of the brightly lighted windows of a drug-store, and Mrs. Reynolds said we were on Bleecker Street. I had now to explain that my asking the way to a drug-store had been merely a bit of subterfuge, which I did in fear and trembling as to how Mrs. Reynolds would accept such deception on my part. But she was all good humor.
"Sure, dearie, it's all right! I'm glad to do a good turn for yez, being as you're a poor body like mesilf, even if ye air a lady!"
We were now standing in the glare of the big colored-glass carboys in the drug-store window at the corner of Bleecker Street and some one of its intersecting alleys. It was now four in the morning, and the streets were almost deserted. My companion smiled at me with the maudlin tenderness which gin inspires in the breast of an old Irishwoman, and as we stood irresolute on the corner I noticed how thinly clad she was. The sharp wind wrapped her calico skirt about her stiffened limbs, and her only wrap was a little black knitted fascinator which did not meet over the torn calico blouse.
"A wee nip of gin would go right to the spot now, wouldn't it, dearie?" the old soul asked wistfully, which reminded me of something I had forgotten: that I still had my precious dollar and a half snugly stowed away in my petticoat pocket. So I suggested that we go to a lunch-room and have a good meal and a cup of hot coffee, and sit there till daylight, which now was not far off.
The prospect of something to eat and something hot to drink infused great cheerfulness into my strange chaperon; she grasped my arm with the gaiety of a school-girl, and we walked eastward until we came to a dairy lunch-room upon the great plate-glass windows of which was enameled in white letters a generous bill of fare at startlingly low prices. The place was of the sort where everybody acts as his own waiter, buying checks for whatever he wants from the cashier and presenting them at a long counter piled up with eatables. Mrs. Reynolds was modesty itself in accepting of my bounty.
When we had finished it was daylight, and I parted from my duenna at the door, she with innumerable terms of maudlin endearment, and an invocation to all the saints in the calendar that they should keep a kindly eye upon me. As to my own feelings, I felt heartless to be obliged to leave the poor creature with nothing more than a twenty-five-cent piece, and with no proffer of future help—if, indeed, she was not beyond help. But I was powerless; for I was as poor as she was. I had suggested her applying to the authorities for aid, but she had received it scornfully, even indignantly, declaring that Mrs. Bridget Reynolds would die and rot before she'd be beholden to anybody for charity. Anything in the shape of organized authority was her constitutional enemy, and the policeman was her hereditary foe. Hospitals were nefarious places where the doctors poisoned you and the nurses neglected you in order that you should die and furnish one more cadaver to the dissecting-rooms; almshouses were the last resort of the broken in heart and spirit, institutions where unspeakable crimes were perpetrated upon the old and helpless. Therefore, was it any wonder this independent old dame of Erin preferred deserted warehouses and dark doorways as shelter?
And so, early in this Easter morning, I left Mrs. Bridget Reynolds at the door of the Bleecker Street lunch-room, she to go her way and I to go mine. I looked back when I had got half a block away, and she was still standing there, apparently undetermined which way to turn. I watched a moment, and presently she ambled across the street and rattled the door of the "ladies'" entrance to the saloon on the corner. Then I turned my face toward the reddening east, against which the shabby housetops and the chimneys and the distant spires and smokestacks stretched out in a broken, black sky-line. I was going to find the home for working girls which the good matron at Jefferson Market had recommended, and the address of which I still had in the bottom of my purse.
I BECOME AN "INMATE" OF A HOME FOR WORKING GIRLS
The spirit of the early Easter Day had breathed everywhere its own ineffable Sabbath peace, and when at last I emerged into Broadway, it was to find that familiar thoroughfare strangely transformed. On the six days preceding choked with traffic and humming with ten thousand noises, it was now silent and deserted as a country lane—silent but for the echo of my own footsteps upon the polished stone flagging, and deserted but for the myriad reflections of my own disheveled self which the great plate-glass windows on either side of the street flashed back at me.
My way lay northward, with the spire of Grace Church as a finger-post. Grace Church had become a familiar landmark in the preceding weeks, so often had I walked past it in my hopeless quest, and now I approached it as one does a friend seen suddenly in a crowd of strangers. The fact that I was approaching an acquaintance, albeit a dumb and unseeing one, now made me for the first time conscious of my personal appearance so persistently reflected by the shop windows. Before one of them I stopped and surveyed myself. Truly I was a sorry-looking object. I had not been well washed or combed since the last morning at Mrs. Pringle's house; for two days I had combed my long and rather heavy hair with one of the small side-combs I wore, and on neither morning had I enjoyed the luxury of soap. And two successive mornings without soap and the services of a stout comb are likely to work all sorts of demoralizing transformations in the appearance of even a lady of leisure, to say nothing of a girl who had worked hard all day in a dirty factory.
Fortunately the street was deserted. I stepped into the entrance of a big, red-sandstone building, and standing between the show-windows, took off my hat, laid it on the pavement, and proceeded to unroll my hair and slick it up once more with the aid of the side-comb, of which I had now only one left, having lost the other somewhere in my flight from Henrietta's. That I should have thought to put on my hat in preparing for that flight I do not understand, for I forgot my gloves, a brand-new pair too; my handkerchief; and, most needful of all else, my ribbon stock-collar, without which my neck rose horribly long and thin above my dusty jacket-collar. Looking at it ruefully, I began to feel for the first time what was for me at least the very quintessence of poverty—the absolute impossibility of personal cleanliness and of decent raiment. I had known hunger and loneliness since I had come to New York, but never before had I experienced this new, this infinitely greater terror—lack of self-respect. That I had done nothing to lower my self-respect had nothing whatever to do with it, since self-respect is often more a matter of material things than of moral values. It is possible for a hungry woman to walk with pride, and it is possible for the immoral and utterly degraded woman to hold her own with the best of her sisters, when it comes to visible manifestation of self-respect, if only she is able to maintain her usual degree of cleanliness and good grooming. But unacquainted with soap for two days! and without a collar! How could I ever summon courage to present myself to anybody in such a condition? Had I been an old woman, I mightn't have cared. But I was a girl; and, being a girl, I suffered all of a girl's heartache and melancholy wretchedness when I remembered that it was Sunday and that there was no hope of buying either collar or comb for twenty-four hours—if, indeed, I dared to spend any of my few remaining dimes and nickels for these necessities, which had suddenly soared to the heights of unattainable luxuries.
In the full consciousness of my disreputable appearance, I hung in the doorway, reluctant to fare forth in the cruel light of the thoroughfare. Hitherto I had had the street all to myself, so it had not mattered so much how I looked. But now an empty car hurtled by, its gong breaking for the first time the silence of the long vista stretching away and dipping southward to the Battery. Then another car came speeding along from the opposite direction, whirled past Grace Church, and northward around the curve at Fourteenth Street; and following in the wake of the car, a hansom-cab with a jaded man and woman locked in each other's arms and fast asleep. As the latter passed close to the curb, I drew into the embrasure of the door as far as possible so as to avoid being seen by the cabman—as if it made the least difference whether he saw me or not; but such is the all-absorbing self-consciousness and vanity of girlhood. It was then that I noticed for the first time the glaring sign that had been staring at me during all these ineffectual attempts to "primp."
"Wanted—Girls to learn flower-making. Paid while learning. Apply Monday morning at nine o'clock."
I repeated the street-number over and over, so as to make sure of remembering it; and then, screwing up my courage, walked hurriedly up the street, trying to ignore the glances which were cast at me by occasional pedestrians. I happened to think of a large dairy lunch-room on Fourteenth Street where I had several times gone for coffee and rolls, and where the cashier and waitresses knew me by sight, and where I thought, by investing in a cup of coffee, I might tidy up a bit in the toilet-room. If only the place should be open on Sunday morning!
And it was. The cashier had just stepped into her cage-like desk, and the waitresses were lined up in their immaculate white aprons and lace head-dresses. I was their first customer, apparently. The cashier, a pretty, amiable girl, suppressed any surprise she may have felt at my appearance, and greeted me with the same dazzling smile with which she greeted every familiar face. I explained to her what I wanted to do, apologizing for my slovenliness. She was all sympathetic attention, her eyes snapped with good-humored interest, and she told me to go back and take all the time I wanted to wash up. In a few minutes she sent me, by one of the waitresses, a fresh piece of soap, a comb, a bit of pumice-stone, a whisk-broom, a nail-file, a pair of curved nail-scissors, a tiny paper parcel containing some face-powder, and, wonder of wonders, a beautifully clean, fresh, shining collar!
Before the big, shimmering mirrors I washed and splashed to my heart's content and to the infinite advantage of my visage. How delicious it was to see and hear and feel the clear, hot water as it rushed from the silver faucet into the white porcelain bowl! I washed and I washed, I combed and I combed, until there was absolutely no more excuse for doing either; then I powdered my face, just enough to take the shine off, filed my finger-nails, brushed my clothing, put on my borrowed collar, and stepped out into the eating-room, feeling, if not looking, like the "perfect lady" which the generous-hearted cashier declared I resembled "as large as life."
"Never mind about the collar; you can just keep it," she said when I returned her toilet articles. "It's not worth but a few cents, anyway, and I've got plenty more of them.... Don't mention it at all; you're perfectly welcome. I didn't do anything more for you than I'd expect you to do for me if I was in such a pickle. If we working girls don't stand up and help one another, I'd like to know who's going to do it for us.... So long!"
"So long!" It was not the first time that I had heard a working girl deliver herself of that laconic form of adieu, and heretofore I had always execrated it as hopelessly vulgar and silly, which no doubt it was and is. But from the lips of that kind-hearted woman it fell upon my ears with a sort of lingering sweetness. It was redolent of hope and good cheer.
The home for working girls I found, not very far away from this lunch-room, in one of the streets south of Fourteenth Street and well over on the East Side. It was a shabby, respectable, unfriendly-looking building of red brick, with a narrow, black-painted arched door. On the cross-section of the center panel was screwed a silver plate, with the name of the institution inscribed in black letters, which gave to the door the gruesome suggestion of a coffin set on end.
A polite pull at the rusty handle of the bell-cord brought no response, and I rang again, a little louder. A chain was rattled and a bolt drawn back. The lid of the black coffin flew open, disclosing, with the suddenness of a jack-in-the-box, a withered old beldam with a large brass key clutched in a hand that trembled violently with palsy.
She grumbled inarticulately, and with a jerk of her head motioned me into a small room opening off the hall, while she closed and locked the door with the great brass key.
The little reception-room, or office, was no more cheerful than the front door, and, like it, partook somewhat of an ecclesiastical aspect. Arranged in a sort of frieze about the room were a series of framed scriptural texts, all of which served to remind one in no ambiguous terms of the wrath of God toward the froward-hearted and of the eternal punishment that awaits unrepentant sinners. And then, at intervals, the vindictive utterances were broken by pictures—these, too, of a religious or pseudo-religious nature.
One of these pictures particularly attracted my attention. It was entitled "Hope leaning upon Faith," and showed an exceedingly sentimental young girl leaning heavily upon an anchor, her eyes lifted heavenward, where the sun was just breaking through black clouds, and all against a perspective of angry sea. I was trying to apply its symbolism to my own case, when a sharp, metallic voice inquired abruptly:
"What did you wish?"
I turned about quickly. A tall, hard-faced woman of forty or thereabouts stood in the door, and looked at me coldly through spectacles that hooked behind ears the natural prominence of which was enhanced by her grayish hair being drawn up tightly and rolled into a "bun" on the very top of the head. She was the personification of neatness, if such be the word to characterize the prim stiffness of a flat-figured, elderly spinster. She wore large, square-toed, common-sense shoes, with low heels capped with rubber cushions, which, as I was shortly to discover, had earned for the lady the sobriquet of "Old Gum Heels." What her real name was I never found out. Nobody knew. She was the most hated of all our tormentors; and in all of the weeks I was to remain in the house over which she was one of the supervisors, I never heard her referred to by any other than the very disrespectful cognomen already quoted. But I am anticipating.
"I would like to get board here," I replied timidly, for the very manner of the woman had in it an acid-like quality which bit and burned the sensibilities like vitriol does the flesh.
"Have you any money?"
"Not very much."
"How much?" she demanded.
"About one dollar."
"What baggage have you?"
"None," I replied, and related as well as my embarrassment would allow me the story of the fire and of my flight from Henrietta, not forgetting the generosity of the cashier in the dairy lunch-room. She listened in silence, and when I had finished I thought I saw the repression of a smile, which may or may not have been of the sardonic order. Then she motioned me to follow her through the long, gloomy hall to the rear of the house, where, turning an angle, we came to a staircase down which a flood of sunlight streamed from the big window on the landing. The sunlight showed walls of shimmering whitewashed purity and unpainted oaken stairs scoured white as a bone. "Old Gum Heels" stopped here, and was beginning to give me directions for finding the matron's room on the floor above, when a door at the back opened and a very little girl appeared with a very large pitcher of hot water, which she held tight in her arms as though it were a doll, jiggling at every step a little of the contents upon the floor.
"Julia, take this girl along with you to Mrs. Pitbladder's room, and tell her that she wishes to make arrangements about board and lodging." And then to me: "Mrs. Pitbladder is the matron. You will pay your money to her, and she will tell you the rules and regulations for inmates.—And then, Julia, hurry back to the kitchen; I'll need you right away."