"Yes, ma'am," replied the child, timidly, with a shy glance at me as she proceeded laboriously up the stairs. At the landing she stopped to draw breath, putting the pitcher upon the floor and relaxing her thin little arms. She was such a mite of a child, hardly more than eight or nine, if judged from the size of the spindly, undeveloped figure. This was swaddled in the ugly apron of blue-checked gingham, fastened down the back with large bone buttons, and so long in the sleeves that the little hands were all but lost, and so long in the skirt that only the ends of the small copper-toed shoes showed beneath. Judged, however, by the close-cropped head and the little sallow face that surmounted the aproned figure, she might have been a woman of twenty-five, so maturely developed was the one, so shrewd and knowing the other. The child leaned her shoulders upon the whitewashed wall and stared at me in bold, though not unfriendly curiosity, which, undoubtedly, I reciprocated. She was evidently sizing me up. I smiled, and she screwed her full, sensitive mouth into a judicial expression, puckering her forehead; then, in a deep, contralto voice, she spoke. What she said I didn't hear, or rather didn't grasp, in my wonder at the quality and timbre of that great voice, which, issuing from the folds of the checked apron, seemed fairly to fill the big hall below and the stair-well above with a deep, beautiful sound. I apologized and asked her to repeat what she had said.
"Your skirt—it's so stylish," she said, and the little hand stole out and began stroking the snugly-fitting serge of that very unpretentious garment.
"I'm very glad you like it," I laughed, "for it's the only skirt I have"; and I picked up the heavy pitcher and carried it up the rest of the way, the child following me, holding up her apron skirts with both hands to keep from stumbling, and making a ringing, metallic noise as the copper toes struck the wood at every rise. She took the pitcher at the head of the stairs without comment, but with a look full of diffident gratitude. Stopping before one of the doors, the child rapped timidly—so timidly, in fact, that it could scarcely be heard. No answer coming, she rapped again, this time a little louder, and a woman's shrill voice screamed, "Come in!"
"Mis' Pitbladder, the lady down-stairs says as this is a young girl what wants to have a talk with youse about coming here," my little guide announced all in one breath, and almost before the door had entirely swung open upon the group within, consisting of an old lady and two little girls. The old lady was in a comfortable state of dishabille; the little girls each wore big checked gingham aprons like Julia's, and buttoned down the back with the same big, white bone buttons. One of them was waving Mrs. Pitbladder's hair with a crimping-iron which she heated in a gas-jet before the bureau; the other child was laboriously working at one of the pudgy hands with a pair of nail-scissors.
"Come in, come in, and don't stand there with the door open," mumbled the bowed figure in the armchair, who held a twisted bit of uncrimped forelock between her teeth to keep it from getting mixed with what was already waved, and which fell over her face so that I could not see her features.
"So you want to come here to board with us, my dear?" began the masked one, which was the signal for an exchange of grave winks between the hairdresser, the manicure, and the little slavey, Julia, who was pouring the hot water into the pitcher on the washstand.
"If I could arrange it," I replied quickly, taking courage from the woman's kindly manner of putting the question, which was in such startling contrast to that of the dragon down-stairs.
"You are a working girl, are you, my dear?"
"I want to be. I'm looking for work now, and I hope to get a job in a few days. I understand your rates are very low, and that I can live here cheaper than almost anywhere else."
"And who sent you here, my dear?"
In answer to this I told her my story almost in totality, leaving out only such details as could not possibly have concerned her. Perfect candor, I was fast learning, was the only way in which one in my desperate situation could hope for any degree of sympathetic treatment, as the time for all silly pride was passed.
Then Mrs. Pitbladder explained the system upon which the house was run. I could have a room all to myself for a dollar and a half a week, or I could sleep in the dormitory for ten cents a night, or fifty cents a week; all terms payable in advance. The latter fact she was particular to impress upon me. As to food, she named a price which fairly took away my breath. Six cents each for meals—six cents each for breakfast, dinner, and supper! I said at once I would become a boarder, and that I would take a cot in the dormitory, for which I would pay from night to night.
At this juncture the girl who answered to the name of May finished undulating the last strand of gray hair, and as she lifted it off her mistress's face that lady raised her head and we looked at each other for the first time. She was somewhere between sixty-five and seventy, and very fat. Mrs. Pitbladder's face was a surprise to me, for all it was a round, red face—the very sort of face in which one would have expected good nature to repose. Its predominating features were a huge, beaked nose and high cheek-bones which encroached to an alarming degree upon the eye-sockets, wherein little dark, furtive eyes regarded me fixedly. It was a face which even the most unsophisticated observer could scarcely fail to characterize as that of a woman hardened in every sort of petty tyranny, a woman who, having the power to make others uncomfortable, found infinite pleasure in doing so, quite apart from any motive of selfish interest. To be sure, I did not read all this in Mrs. Pitbladder's face by the end of our first meeting. The supreme question to be settled, the only one which had for me a vital interest then, was how long I might still put off utter destitution in the event of my not finding work within the ensuing week.
The terms were always in advance, Mrs. Pitbladder again repeated, as she entered my name and age in a long book which May brought from the dark mahogany desk that matched the rest of the well-made furniture in the spacious room. I would now pay her, she said, ten cents for the bed I was to sleep in that night, and my board money would be paid meal by meal to the woman in charge of the dining-room. I gave her a twenty-five-cent piece. I had remaining three other silver quarters. I watched my twenty-five-cent piece drop into Mrs. Pitbladder's purse, and heard the greedy mouth of that receptacle snap shut.
"Mintie," Mrs. Pitbladder spoke briskly, "show this girl to the sitting-room, and then go and find Mrs. Lumley and tell her to come to me at once."
Mintie, who had now finished lacing the matron's shoes, rose eagerly and, with a shy glance toward me, made for the door. I hesitated, and looked at Mrs. Pitbladder.
"You may go now," she said, with a wave of the pudgy hand.
"Excuse me," I replied, considerably abashed, quite as much by the curious looks of the little girls as by the annoyance of having to remind the matron about the fifteen cents change still due me—"excuse me, but I gave you twenty-five cents."
"And I gave you your change, my dear," the matron returned suavely but decisively.
"I beg your pardon for contradicting you," I replied firmly, and without taking my eyes from hers, which blinked unpleasantly. "You did not give me any change."
"Look in your purse and see," said Mrs. Pitbladder.
"It is quite unnecessary," I replied; "but I will do so to satisfy you"; and I opened the purse again and showed my three remaining silver pieces, which to further satisfy her I took out upon my palm and then turned the purse's lining inside out.
But Mrs. Pitbladder did not seem impressed. I for my part resolved to be equally insistent, inspired as I was with the determination that comes to desperate people. There were fifteen cents due me, and nobody should cheat me out of a single one of those precious pennies if I could possibly prevent it. There was a short silence in which we took each other's measure, the children looking on in evident enjoyment of the situation. Finally the old lady opened the purse again and gave me the change due, though she grumblingly maintained that it was I, not she, who was in error.
When the door closed at last upon us, my small companion clutched my hand and gave it a jubilant squeeze. "Golly! that did me good," she whispered as we were going down-stairs. "She always lets on to make mistakes about the girls' change, only most of 'em is so scairt of her they just let her beat them out of it."
While the child went to find Mrs. Lumley I waited in the sitting-room. It was an empty, ugly place, with bare floors and whitewashed walls, the latter decorated, like those of the office, with framed scriptural texts. Its furniture consisted of several long, slat-bottomed settees and a single large rocking-chair which, crowded with children, was swinging noisily over the bare boards. At our entrance the chair stopped rocking, and one of the children climbed out.
It was Julia. She came promptly over to my side, while a half-dozen of the other children jumped off the benches and ran to the rocking-chair to squabble over the question of who should take the vacant place.
"Did yez have a row?" she asked eagerly. "Say, did yez?"
I evaded the question, thinking it neither advisable nor proper to satisfy the curiosity of the little mite. To divert her attention, I began questioning her about herself and her little companions—who were they, what were they, and how did they come to be here?
"Why, don't you know?" the little one asked, looking at me in amazement. "We're waifs!"
"Waifs! What sort of waifs?"
"Why, just waifs."
"But I didn't know this was an orphan-asylum," I said, looking about at the children sitting in rows of two and three upon the scattered settees.
"Oh, no, ma'am. We're not orfants," the child hastened to correct me; "we're just waifs."
"And where are your fathers and mothers, then?" I cried.
"We ain't got none," Julia replied promptly, the little hand again stealing through the long sleeve and stroking my much-admired skirt. She had now snuggled down beside me upon the settee, and instinctively, rather than from any desire to show friendliness, I drew my arm about the small shoulders, which overture was interpreted as an invitation for the cropped head to nestle closer.
"But if you haven't father or mothers, then you must be orphans," I reasoned,—an argument which made Julia straighten up suddenly and look at me in puzzled wonderment.
"No, we ain't orfants, neither, exceptin' just a few that did onct have fathers and mothers, mebbe; but me and May Wistaria and Mintie Delancy—they was the girls you seen up-stairs in HER room—we never did have no fathers and mothers, we're just waifs, and so's them kids waifs too that's playing in the rocking-chair. They was all foundling-asylum kids."
At this moment a thick-set woman in a black dress appeared in the doorway, which was a signal for all the little girls to make an onslaught upon her. They twined their arms about her large waist, they hung three and four upon each of her generous, kindly arms, and the smaller girls held on to her skirts.
Thus encumbered, the good Mrs. Lumley introduced herself in an asthmatic voice which was scarcely more than a whisper, and in a manner as kindly as it was humble. Then she shoved the children back to their benches, and led me up-stairs to the dormitory; showing me the cot where I was to sleep, the lavatory where I would make my toilet in the mornings, and the bath-room where I had the privilege of taking a bath once a week. She also told me the rules of the house: first bell at six o'clock, when everybody in the dormitory must rise and dress; second bell at half-past six, when everybody must leave the dormitory, not to return until bedtime. As to that hour, it came at various times: for the waifs it was seven o'clock; for the regular lodgers, ten o'clock; and for the transients, from seven till twelve o'clock, at which hour the house was closed for the night.
All this Mrs. Lumley repeated in a dreary monotone which seemed strangely out of keeping with the half-concealed kindliness which was revealed in her homely countenance. She was a working matron, a sort of upper servant, and had been three years in the place, which, I gradually gleaned from her, had been started as a home for destitute children and had eventually assumed the character and discharged the functions of a girls' lodging-house. Under what auspices the house was conducted she didn't know any more than did I, any more than I know to this day. There was a board of managers,—ladies who sometimes came to look at the dormitories and the bath-rooms and then went away again in their carriages; there was the matron, Mrs. Pitbladder, who had been there four or five years, she thought, but wasn't certain; there were several under-matrons, who acted as teachers to the children. What did the children study? Reading and writing and arithmetic and the Bible; and then, as soon as they were old enough, they were turned into the sewing-room, where they were taught dressmaking, or into the laundry, where they learned to do fine laundry-work.
All this sounded just and good, and I began to alter my opinion of the place. I even began to think that perhaps Mrs. Pitbladder was merely absent-minded and a little crotchety; that she had not meant to forget my fifteen cents change. I did not know until several days later that the house did a large dressmaking and laundry business, and that their advertisement appeared, and does to this day appear, in all the daily newspapers. It was from the older girls in the dormitory, in whispered talks we had at night after we were in bed, that I learned this and innumerable other things, which my own observation during the weeks that followed served to confirm.
To this home for working girls the waifs, the foundlings, came at all sorts of tender years, came from God only knows where—I could never find out exactly—some of them, perhaps, from city asylums, some from the families upon which they had been left as an encumbrance. They came as little children, and they went away as grown women. For them the home was practically a prison. Locked in here from morning till night, week in, week out, year after year, they were prisoners at all save certain stated times when they were taken abroad for a walk under charge of the matrons. In return for a scant education in the rudimentary branches, and a very generous tuition in the drudgery of the kitchen, the laundry, and the sewing-room, they received in all these years only their board and clothes and a certain nominal protection against the vices and corruptions of the street and the gutter from which they had been snatched.
"You won't eat here?" Mrs. Lumley inquired as we were going down-stairs again. To which I replied with a "Yes, why not? I have arranged with Mrs. Pitbladder to do so."
We were on the landing where the stairs turned into the ground-floor. She glanced apprehensively at Mrs. Pitbladder's door, into which a small blue-aproned figure at this moment was passing with a tray laden with Mrs. Pitbladder's breakfast. When it had closed again, she looked at me hesitatingly, as if fearful of taking me too far into her confidence. Then, perhaps reading a certain unconscious reassurance there, she replied with a brief—
"I wouldn't, if I was you. You can't stand it."
"But I'll have to stand it," I returned; "I'm as poor as anybody here."
She shook her head. "But you couldn't work on it—you're not used to it. I can see that. Besides, it isn't so cheap as you think it'll be. You'd better go out. I wouldn't even eat here to-day. I wouldn't begin it. There's a little lunch-room over on Third Avenue where you can get enough to eat, and just as cheap as here."
The woman's manner was so mysterious, and withal so very earnest, not to say urgent, that I felt instinctively that there was something more in all she said than the mere depreciation of the quality of the victuals she warned me against. So I was not surprised when she said slowly and insinuatingly, as though feeling every step of the way:
"You know the misunderstanding you had this morning—about the change?"
"Yes," I answered, more mystified than ever. Then, as she looked me full in the eyes, light dawned upon me, and I saw the old woman up-stairs in a character as startling as it was infamous.
"Well," Mrs. Lumley said, when she saw that I understood; and with that she again dropped into her habitual expression of bovine stolidness. We parted at the foot of the stairs, she to disappear into the back of the house, and I to join the waifs in the unfriendly sitting-room.
The afternoon I spent sitting in Union Square, whence I went at half-past five for a bite of supper in the dairy lunch-room where I had made my toilet in the morning. I had had no luncheon, feeling that I could not afford more than two meals a day now. I sat a long time over my cup of coffee and three hard rolls. I did not want to return to that dreary house until the lamps should be lighted and it was time to go to bed. The very thought of returning to sit with those forlorn waifs, in that cheerless whitewashed sitting-room, was appalling.
I returned a few minutes before seven, just in time to hear the children singing the last stanza of "Beulah Land" as I passed up-stairs to the dormitory on the third floor. An old woman sat outside the door, crocheting a shawl in such light as she could get from a blue-shaded night-lamp that hung in the middle of the great whitewashed room within. She looked up from her work long enough to challenge me with a shrewd, impertinent look of inquiry, demanded to know if I had any lead-pencils about my person, and, receiving a polite negative, allowed me to pass.
I was not the first arrival. In the dim light I could make out, here and there, a bulging surface in the row of gray-blanketed cots, while in the quiet I could hear the deep breathing of the sleepers. For they all seemed to be asleep, save one who tossed from one side to the other and sighed wearily. The latter was not far away from my own cot, and before I had finished undressing she was sitting up looking at me.
"I'd give anything for a drink of water," she said softly.
"Why, is there no water?" I whispered.
The words were not out of my mouth before there was a thumping upon the floor outside, and the voice of the beldame spoke sharply:
"No talking, girls!"
The thirsty girl dropped back to her pillow, and I crept under the blanket. Later on I learned that each must have her drink of water before entering the dormitory, because, once there, it was an iron-clad rule that we should not leave until after the rising-bell had rung at six the next morning. I also learned, later on, that had there not been also an iron-clad rule against carrying lead-pencils into the dormitory, the snowy-white walls were like as not to be scrawled with obscenities during the night hours.
All sorts of girls seeking a night's refuge drifted into this working-girls' home. Most of them were "ne'er-do-weels"; some of them were girls of lax morality, though very few were essentially "bad." When, however, they did happen to be "bad," they were very bad indeed. And these lead-pencil inscriptions they left behind them were the frightful testimony of their innate depravity.
Fortunately for me, I was quite ignorant on this first night of what the character of the girls under the gray blankets might in all possibility have been, and I settled myself to go to sleep with the thought that a working-girls' home was not half bad, after all.
A little while later there was a fresh burst of childish voices and the clatter of shoes on the stairs. It was the orphans marching up to bed singing "Happy Day!" The music stopped when they reached the dormitory door, which they entered silently, two by two. Their undressing was but the matter of a few moments, so methodical and precise was every movement. The small aprons and petticoats were folded across the foot of each cot, and, on top, the long black stockings laid neatly. Each pair of copper-toed shoes was placed in exactly the same spot under the foot of each cot, and each little body, after wriggling itself into a gray flannellet nightgown, dropped to its knees and bowed its head upon the blanket in silent prayer.
After they had tucked themselves in bed a voice very near me, and which I recognized as Julia's, whispered:
"May, are yez asleep?"
"No," muttered May.
"Say, is to-morrow bean day or molasses day?"
"Bean," replied May; and then all was silent in the dormitory, and so remained save for the interruption caused by the tiptoe entrance of some newly arrived "transient," some homeless wanderer driven here to seek a night refuge.
In the morning we washed and combed in a large common toilet-room. There were only a dozen face-bowls, and these we had to watch our chance to pounce upon. I waited until the rush was over, and after the orphans had scurried down to their breakfast I performed a more leisurely toilet. Two other girls were there, doing the same thing. I recognized them as transient lodgers, like myself, wanderers that had drifted in.
Both were very young, and one, whom I had heard sigh, and who groaned continuously in her sleep, very, very pretty. The latter entered into conversation as we combed before the long, narrow glass. "Do you stay here all the time?" I asked. No, she had been living with her "lady-friend"; and that lady-friend having departed to the country for lack of employment until times would pick up, she was looking about for a boarding-house. The subject of work gave me my opportunity, and I asked her if she knew of a job. She shook her head. She was a skirt-hand; she had worked in a Broadway sweat-shop, and didn't know anything about any other sort of work. As we talked she finished her toilet, putting on as the finishing touch a great picture-hat and a scanty black Eton. Ready for the street, you would have little dreamed that she had slept in a ten-cent lodging-house. After going through a sort of inspection by the old woman at the entrance, during which it was ascertained we had not pilfered anything, we were allowed to depart.
IN WHICH I SPEND A HAPPY FOUR WEEKS MAKING ARTIFICIAL FLOWERS
Bright and early, after a four-cent breakfast, I was on my way to find the place where I had read the sign, "Flower-makers Wanted.—Paid while learning."
It was not difficult to find, even had I not had the number so securely tucked away in my memory.
"Flowers & Feathers," in giant gilded letters, I read a block away, as I dodged electric cars and motor vehicles, and threaded the maze of delivery wagons and vans. I had a hasty interview with the superintendent, a large and effusively polite man, whose plump white hands sparkled with gems. He put me on the freight-elevator and told the boy to show me to Miss Higgins. At the third floor the iron doors were thrown open, and I stepped into what seemed to be a great, luxuriant garden. The room was long and wide, and golden with April sunshine, and in the April breeze that blew through the half-open windows a million flowers fluttered and danced in the ecstacy of spring. Flowers, flowers, flowers everywhere; piled high on the tables, tossed in mad confusion on the floor, and strung in long garlands to the far end of the big room.
"The lady with the black hair, sitting down there by them American Beauties," said the elevator-boy, waving his hand toward the rear.
I passed down a narrow path between two rows of tables that looked like blossoming hedges. Through the green of branches and leaves flashed the white of shirt-waists, and among the scarlet and purple and yellow and blue of myriad flowers bobbed the smiling faces of girls as they looked up from their task long enough to inspect the passing stranger. Here were no harsh sounds, no rasping voices, no shrill laughter, no pounding of engines. Everything just as one would expect to find it in a flower-garden—soft voices humming like bees, and gentle merriment that flowed musically as a brook over stones.
"The lady with the black hair" sat before a cleared space on a table banked on either side with big red roses. In front of her were three or four glasses, each containing one salmon-colored rose, fresh and fragrant from the hothouse.
Leaning forward, with her elbows on the table and her chin in her palm, she was staring intently at these four splendid blooms. Then she picked up a half-finished muslin rose and compared them. All this I saw while I waited timidly for her to look up. But she did not see me. She was absorbed in the study of the living rose. At last I summoned courage to inquire if she was Miss Higgins. She started, looked up quickly, and nodded her head, with a smile that displayed a row of pretty teeth. Her manner was cordial.
"Have you ever worked at flowers before?" she asked.
"Ever worked at feathers?"
"Well, the best I can do is to put you at blossom-making to-day, and see how you take to it. It's too bad, though, you don't know anything about feathers; for the flower season ends in a month, anyway, and then I have to lay off all my girls till September, unless they can make feathers too. Then they get jobs on the next floor. There'll be lots of work here, though, for a month, and we might take you back in September."
The tone was so kindly, the interest so genuine, that I was prompted to explain my situation, assuring her I should be glad to get work even for four weeks. As a result, I was put on Rosenfeld's pay-roll for three and a half dollars per week, with half a day's extra pay for night work: the latter had been a necessity three or four nights every week for six months, and was likely to continue for two, maybe three, weeks longer. Besides the assurance of extra pay from this source, Miss Higgins also intimated, as she conducted me to one of the tables, that if I was "able to make good" she would raise me to four dollars at the end of the week.
Soon I was "slipping up" poppies under the instruction of Bessie, a dreamy-eyed young Jewess. The process was simple enough, to watch the skilled fingers of the other girls, but it was very tedious to my untried hand. In awkward, self-conscious fashion I began to open out the crimped wads of scarlet muslin which came to us hot from the crimping-machine.
"You mustn't smooth the creases out too much," Bessie protested; and with a deft touch, the right pull here, the proper flattening there, the muslin scrap blossomed into a fluttering corolla.
"Don't get discouraged. We've all got to learn," one of the girls at the far end of the table called out cheerily.
"Yes, and don't be afraid of making a mistake," put in my vis-a-vis, a pretty Italian. "We all make mistakes while we're learning; but you'll find this a nice place to work, and Miss Higgins is so lovely—she's awful nice, too, to the new girls."
"Yes, indeed," added Bessie. "It isn't many years since she worked at the table herself. I've often heard her tell about the first day she went to work down at Golderberg's."
"That's the worst in town," piped another; "I stayed there just two days. That was enough for me. Whenever the girls disagree down there, they step out into the hall and lick each other. First day I was there, one girl got two ribs broken. Her rival just walked all over her."
"What did they do with the girls?"
"Oh, nothing. They made it all up, and were as sweet as two turtle-doves, walking around the workroom with their arms around each other."
"Well, that's what it is to work in those cheap shops," commented Annie Welshons, of the big blue eyes and yellow hair. "If they ever do get respectable girls, they won't stay long."
As we worked the conversation ran easily. The talk was in good, up-to-date English. There was rarely a mispronounced word, or a slip in grammar; and there was just enough well-selected slang to make the dialogue bright and to stamp the chatterers as conversant with the live questions of the day. The topics at all times bespoke clean minds and an intelligent point of view.
"Are you American born?" Bessie inquired by and by.
The question sounded unusual, almost unnecessary, until I discovered that out of the eight girls in our immediate circle, only half were native Americans. My vis-a-vis, Therese, was a Neapolitan; Mamie, a Genoese; Amelia was born in Bohemia; the girl with the yellow hair was North German; and Nellie declared she was from County Killarney and mighty glad of it.
"Well, I'm an American," said Bessie, tossing her head in mock scorn, as she cleared away a quantity of the flowers that had been meanwhile accumulating on the wire lines.
Therese laughed. "But only by the skin of your teeth—an eleventh-hour arrival." Then she turned to me and whispered that Bessie was born only two weeks after her mother came to this country.
"Better late than never," laughed Bessie, casting a backward and withering glance at the aliens as she moved away with her trayful of scarlet blossoms to the branchers' table, where another relay of workers twisted green leaves among the scarlet and tied them in wreaths and bunches.
By eleven o'clock I had made two dozen poppies, which Amelia told me was "just grand for a beginner." I began to feel confident that I should hold the job, and my fingers flew. Into the glue-pot at my right hand I dipped my little finger, picking up at the same moment with my other hand a bit of paper-covered wire. On the end of the wire was a bunch of short yellow threads, which were touched lightly with my glue-smeared finger, the wire being held between the thumb and forefinger. With the free left hand, I caught up a fluttering corolla, touching its perforated center with glue; then I "slipped up" the wire about an inch, took up another corolla in the same way, and then drew the two to the "pipped" or heart end of the wire, where they now became a big red flower with a golden eye. A bit of dark-green rubber tubing drawn over the wire completed the process, the end was bent into a hook, and the full-blown poppy hung on the line.
At a quarter past eleven a little girl wearing an immense flower-hat and carrying a large market-basket came and asked us for our lunch orders. She carried a long piece of pasteboard and wrote as the girls dictated. One could buy anything one wanted, Bessie explained; bread and butter, eggs, chops, steak, potatoes, canned goods, for which there was ample provision for cooking on the gas-stoves used by the rose-makers to heat their pincers. When the little girl was gone I learned that she was one of the errand-runners, and that this was her daily task.
"How far does she go to market?"
"Over to First Avenue."
"Isn't that pretty far for a small girl to carry such a heavy load?"
"Oh, she doesn't mind it. All the errand-girls are tickled to death to get the job. The grocers pay them ten per cent. commission on all they buy."
It lacked but a few minutes of twelve when the child returned, panting under her burden.
"How much did you clear to-day?" somebody asked.
"Twenty-one cents," the child answered, blushing as red as the poppies.
When Miss Higgins slipped her tall, light figure into her stylish jacket and began to pin on her hat it was always a sign that the lunch-hour had come. One hundred and twenty girls popped up from their hiding-places behind the hedges, which had grown to great height since morning. In a trice spaces were cleared on the tables. Cups and saucers and knives and forks appeared as if by magic. In that portion of the room where the crimping-machines stood preparations for cooking commenced. The pincers and tongs of the rose-makers, and the pressing-molds of the leaf-workers, were taken off the fires, and in their place appeared stew-pans and spiders, and pots and kettles. Bacon and chops sputtered, steak sizzled; potatoes, beans, and corn stewed merrily. What had been but lately a flower-garden, by magic had become a mammoth kitchen filled with appetizing sounds and delicious odors. White-aproned cooks scurried madly. It was like a school-girls' picnic. As they moved about I noticed how well dressed and neat were my shop-mates in their white shirt-waists and dark skirts. Indeed, in the country village I had come from any one of them would have appeared as the very embodiment of fashion.
Cooked and served at last, we ate our luncheon at leisure, and with the luxury of snowy-white table-cloths and napkins of tissue-paper, which needs of the workroom were supplied in prodigal quantities.
During this hour I heard a great deal about the girls and their work. They told me, as they told all new-comers, of the wonderful rise of Miss Higgins, who began as a table-worker at three and a half dollars a week, and was now making fifty dollars. They told me of her rise from the best rose-maker in New York to designer and forewoman. They dwelt on her kindness to everybody, discussed her pretty clothes, and wondered which of her beaux she was going to marry.
All afternoon I "slipped up" poppies. At five Miss Higgins came to tell me I was "doing fine," and that I should have four dollars instead of three and a half. This made the work easier than ever, and my fingers flew happily till six o'clock. Then we cooked dinner as we did our luncheon, but we took only half an hour for our evening meal, so as to get off at half-past nine instead of ten. At night the work was harder, as the room became terribly hot from the gas-jets and from the stoves where the rose-makers heated their tools. The faces grew tired and pale, and the girls sang to keep themselves awake. "The Rabbi's Daughter," "The City of Sighs and Tears," and "The Banquet in Misery Hall" were the favorite songs. A rising breeze swept up Broadway, now almost deserted, and rushed through the windows, setting all our blossoms fluttering. Outside a soft, warm spring rain began to fall on the tired, sleepy city.
One week, two weeks, passed in these pleasant surroundings. I was still "slipping up" poppies all day long, and every evening till half-past nine. Then I went home to the little cot in the dormitory of the "home." It would seem that all the world's wife and daughters were to wear nothing but poppies that season. But ours was only a small portion of Rosenfeld's output. Violets, geraniums, forget-me-nots, lilies-of-the-valley, apple-blossoms, daisies, and roses of a score of varieties were coming to life in this big garden in greater multitudes even than our common poppies. Forty girls worked on roses alone. The rose-makers are the swells of the trade. They are the best paid, the most independent, and always in competitive demand during the flower season. Any one can learn with patience how to make other kinds of flowers; but the rose-maker is born, and the thoroughly experienced rose-maker is an artist. Her work has a distinction, a touch, a "feel," as she calls it, which none but the artist can give.
The star rose-maker of the shop, next to the forewoman (who was reputed the finest in America), was about twenty-five. Her hair was fluffy and brown, and her eyes big and dark blue. She was of Irish birth, and had been in America about fourteen years. One day I stopped at her chair and asked how long it took her to learn.
"I'm still learning," she replied, without looking up from the tea-rose in her fingers. "It was seven years before I considered myself first-class; and though I'm at it now thirteen, I don't consider I know it all yet." She worked rapidly, flecking the delicate salmon-colored petals with her glue-finger, and pasting them daintily around the fast-growing rose. I watched her pinch and press and crease each frail petal with her hot iron instruments, and when she had put on a thick rubber stem and hung the finished flower on the line she looked up and smiled.
"Want to see a rose-maker's hand?" she remarked, turning her palm up for my inspection. She laughed aloud at my exclamation of horror. Calloused and hard as a piece of tortoise-shell, ridged with innumerable corrugations, and hopelessly discolored, with the thumb and forefinger flattened like miniature spades, her right hand had long ago lost nearly all semblance to the other.
"It is the hot irons do that," she said, drawing her pincers from the fire and twirling them in the air until they grew cool enough to proceed with the work. "We use them every minute. We crease the petals with them, and crinkle and vein and curl the outer edges. And we always have to keep them just hot enough not to scorch the thin muslin."
"How many can you make a day?"
"That depends on the rose. This sort—" picking up a small, cheap June rose—"this sort a fair worker can make a gross of a day. But I have made roses where five single flowers were considered a fine day's job. Each of those roses had one hundred and seventy-five pieces, however; and there were eighteen different shapes and sizes of petals; and besides that, every one of those pieces had to be put in its own place. If one piece had been wrongly applied, the whole rose would have been spoiled. But they don't make many of such complicated roses in this country. They have to import them. They haven't enough skilled workers to fill big orders, and it doesn't pay the manufacturers to bother with small orders."
The girl did all the fine work of the place, and had always more waiting to be done than she could have accomplished with four hands instead of two. She had no rival to whom this surplus work could be turned over. The dull season had no terrors for her, nor would it have had for her comrades had they been equally skilled. She made from twenty-two to twenty-five dollars a week, all the year round, and was too busy ever to take a vacation. The other girls averaged nine dollars, and if they got eight months' work a year they considered themselves fortunate. They were clever and industrious, but they had not learned to make the finer grade of roses.
The third week came and went all too quickly, and we were now entering on the fourth. Plainly the season was drawing to its close. The orders that had come pouring in from milliners and modistes all over the land for six months were now dwindling daily. The superintendent and the "boss" walked through the department every day, and we heard them talk about overproduction. Friday the atmosphere was tense with anxiety. The girls' faces were grave. Almost without exception, there were people at home upon whom this annual "lay-off" fell with tragic force. I have not talked with one of them who did not have to work, and they have always some one at home to care for. A few were widows with small children at home or in the day nursery. One can tell little, by their appearance, about these secret burdens. Each girl wears a mask. The neat costume, made with her own hands in midnight hours snatched from hard-earned rest, is no evidence of extravagance, or even of comfortable circumstances. It is only that manifestation of proper pride and self-respect which the best type of wage-earning woman is never without. If they sometimes talk happily about theaters and parties and beaux, if occasionally there is a brief spell of innocent hilarity in the workroom, it is only the inevitable and legitimate outcropping of healthy and wholesome animal spirits, of a vigorous hope which not even the hard conditions of life can crush.
On Saturday morning many of the girls sat idle. "Don't work too fast, or you'll work yourself out of a job," one cried in jest; but the meaning was one of dead earnest. And as the day passed the prophecy came true to one after another. In the afternoon we made a feint of work by papering wires and opening petals for those who were still busy. The hours passed drearily. Miss Higgins was going over her pay-roll, checking off the names of the girls who could make feathers as well as flowers. All others were to be laid off indefinitely that night. We watched anxiously for the moment, which was not far off.
"I hope Miss Higgins won't cry—she did last year. It breaks her up terribly to let us off," somebody remarked.
"It's a long time to be idle—till September," I suggested to the girl across the work-table. She looked up in surprise.
"Idle!" she exclaimed. "But we are never idle. We daren't. We get other jobs."
"Oh, everything: waitress in a summer boarding-house, novelty goods, binderies, shirt-waists, stores, anything we can get."
"She's coming," some one whispered. Everybody tried to look unconcerned. Those who had no work to claim attention looked carefully at their finger-nails, or found sudden necessity to adjust collars and belts. Miss Higgins passed along the tables, bending over the heads and speaking to each in a low voice. The tears were running down her cheeks. Those retained concealed their happiness as best they could, and spoke words of sympathy and encouragement to their less fortunate companions. The warrants were received with a stoicism that was more pathetic than tears. From the far end of the room I heard an unaccustomed sound, and turning, I saw the forewoman, who had dropped into a chair at the forget-me-not table, her face buried in her arms, and sobbing like a child. It was the signal that her cruel duty was done, that the last "lay-off" sentence had been pronounced, that the work for the day and for the "season" was over, that it had come time to say good-by.
"Good-by!" The voices echoed as we trooped down-stairs to the street door. "Good-by! Good-by!" The lingering farewells rose faintly above the noises of Broadway, as we scattered at the corner. Good-by to Rosenfeld's—now no longer a reality, but rather a memory of idyllic beauty—the workroom bright with sunshine and flashing with color, with the faces of the workers bent over the fashioning of rose and poppy, and best of all, the kind hearts and the quick sympathy that blossomed there as luxuriantly as the flowers themselves.
Good-by to my four happiest weeks in the workaday world.
THREE "LADY-FRIENDS," AND THE ADVENTURES THAT BEFALL THEM
Into every human experience there must come sooner or later the bitter consciousness that Nature is remorselessly cruel; that she laughs loudest when we are most miserable; that she is never so bright, never so beautiful as in the darkest hour of our need; that she ever makes mock of our agony and ever smiles serenely at our despair.
Such, at least, were my feelings in those long, beautiful June days that followed close on the "lay-off" at Rosenfeld's.
Dear little Bessie! poor unhappy Eunice! This chapter of my experiences is so dominated by their personalities that I shall devote a few words to recounting the circumstances which brought us together and sent us faring forth on a summer's day to seek new fortunes, three "lady-friends," arm in arm. I make no apology for saying "lady-friends." I know all the prejudices of polite society, which smiles at what is esteemed to be a piece of vulgar vanity characteristic of the working-girl world. And yet I use the term here in all seriousness, in all good faith; not critically, not playfully, but tenderly. Because in the humble world in which our comradeship was formed there is none other to designate the highest type of friendship, no other phrase to define that affection between girl and girl which is as the love of sisters. In the great workaday world where we toiled and hoped and prayed and suffered together for a brief period we were called "the three lady-friends" by our shop-mates, and such we were to each other always, and such we shall be throughout the chapter; and I know, if Bessie and Eunice were here to-night, looking over my shoulder as I write the account of that sordid little tragedy and the part they played in it,—I know they would clasp their rough little hands in mine and nod approval.
Bessie had been my "learner" at Rosenfeld's. I still remember her exactly as I saw her that first time, a slender little figure bending over the work-table. Her shirt-waist was snowy-white, and fastened down—oh, so securely!—under the narrow leather belt; she had a wealth of straight blonde hair of that clear, transparent quality which, when heaped high on her head, looked like a mass of spun glass; her cheeks, which were naturally very pale, burned a deep crimson as they reflected the light on the poppies beneath; and after a while, when she raised her head, I saw that her eyes were blue, and that her profile, sharp and clear cut, was that of a young Jewess. I had thought her to be about twenty-two,—for, pretty and fresh as she was, she looked every day of it,—but I found out later that she was not then eighteen.
We had not been long getting acquainted—that is, as well acquainted as was possible in a busy shop like Rosenfeld's. Indeed, it would be a strange, sad world—stranger and sadder than it really is—if Bessie and I had not sooner or later established a certain bond of intimacy. Sitting opposite at the same work-table, we made poppies together and exchanged our little stories. She had been working, since she was fifteen, at all sorts of odd jobs: cash-girl in a department store; running errands for a fashionable modiste; cashier in a dairy lunch-room; making picture-frames. This was her second season at flower-making, and she liked it better than anything she had ever tried, if only there was work all the year round; for she couldn't afford to sit idle through the long summer months—well, I should say not!—with eight small brothers and sisters at home, and a rather incompetent father, and sixteen dollars a month rent! The experiences of a score of shops, and the motley crew of people she had worked with in these busy years, Bessie in her careless, simple narrative had the power to invest with lifelike reality.
Scarcely less interesting than all this to me was my own story to Bessie, which found ready sympathy in her tender heart, especially that part of it that had to do with the home for working girls where I was now living. For to Bessie, with her inborn racial love of family, nothing was so much to be pitied as the unfortunates who found shelter there. She seemed to take a certain sort of consolation for her own hard life in hearing the sordid details of the wretched waifs and strays that came wandering into the "home" at all hours of the day and night. I told her about the dormitory where we slept side by side in gray-blanketed cots, each girl's clothes folded neatly across the footboard; of the cross old dragon who sat outside in the brightly lighted passageway, and snored all night long, when she should have been attending to her duties,—which duties were to keep an eye on us lest we rob one another of the few pennies we might have under our pillows, or that we might not scrawl obscene verses on the whitewashed walls, in case we had succeeded in smuggling in a forbidden lead-pencil. For such offenses, and they happened only too often, we were all held equally guilty in the eyes of the sour, autocratic matron. As each night brought a fresh relay of girls to the dormitory, it was productive of a new series of episodes, which I related faithfully to Bessie.
That is how she became interested in Eunice. The latter had come tiptoeing into the dormitory one night long after the other girls were fast asleep, and without undressing threw herself on the vacant cot next to mine. In the lamplight that shone from the passageway full on her face, I saw, as I peeped above the rough blanket, that the new-comer was no common type of waif and stray. There was an elusive charm in the glimpse of profile and in the delicate aquiline features, a certain suggestion of beauty, were it not for the white, drawn look that enveloped them like a death-mask. As I was gazing furtively at her she turned on her side, moaning as only a girl can moan when peace of mind is gone forever. Such sounds were not uncommon in the dormitory. Several times, waking in the night, I had listened pityingly to the same half-smothered lament. On this night I had fallen asleep as usual, when suddenly a shriek rang out, and I wakened to hear the angry accents of the beldam protesting against "hysterics," and the indistinct muttering of the girlish sleepers whose rest the stranger had so inconsiderately disturbed. In a few moments everything was quiet again, our old woman had renewed her snoring, and then the new-comer, repressing her anguish as best she could, slid kneeling to the floor.
It was then, all sleep gone for that night, I reached out my hand and touched the sleeve of her black dress.
From that moment we became friends. The information which she vouchsafed about herself was meager and not of a character to throw much light upon her former condition and environment. It was obvious that there had been a tragedy in her life, and I instinctively guessed what that tragedy was, although I respected the reserve she threw around her and asked no indiscreet questions. She was fairly well educated, had been brought up in a small New Jersey village, and had been a stenographer until she went to a telephone office to tend a switchboard. Between that job and her advent in the "home" was an obvious hiatus, which at times she vaguely referred to as a period wherein she "lost her grip on everything." She had no money, and her clothes were even shabbier than my own, and she was too discouraged even to look for work. Her cot and three meager meals a day, consisting of bread and tea for breakfast and supper, and bread and coffee and soup for dinner, she received, as did all the transient boarders, in return for a ten-hour-day's work in the "home" kitchen. After a few nights she ceased moaning, and settled gradually into a hopeless apathy, while over her deep gray eyes there grew a film of silent misery.
Stirred by my fragmentary accounts of Eunice's wretchedness, the generous-hearted Bessie one day suggested that we take her with us to look for a job as soon as the anticipated "lay-off" notice came into effect at Rosenfeld's. And so, on the Monday morning following that dreaded event, Bessie met Eunice and me at the lower right-hand corner of Broadway and Grand Street, and together we applied for work at the R—— Underwear Company, which had advertised that morning for twenty operators.
"Ever run a power Singer?" queried the foreman.
"No, but we can learn. We're all quick," answered Bessie, who had volunteered to act as spokesman.
"Yes, I guess you can learn all right, but you won't make very much at first. All come together?... So! Well, then, I guess you'll want to work in the same room," and with that he ushered us into a very inferno of sound, a great, yawning chaos of terrific noise. The girls, who sat in long rows up and down the length of the great room, did not raise their eyes to the new-comers, as is the rule in less strenuous workrooms. Every pair of eyes seemed to be held in fascination upon the flying and endless strip of white that raced through a pair of hands to feed itself into the insatiable maw of the electric sewing-machine. Every face, tense and stony, bespoke a superb effort to concentrate mind and body, and soul itself, literally upon the point of a needle. Every form was crouched in the effort to guide the seam through the presser-foot. And piled between the opposing phalanxes of set faces were billows upon billows of foamy white muslin and lace—the finished garments wrought by the so-many dozen per hour, for the so-many cents per day,—and wrought, too, in this terrific, nerve-racking noise.
The foreman led us into the middle of the room, which was lighted by gas-jets that hung directly over the girls' heads, although the ends of the shop had bright sunshine from the windows. He seemed a good-natured, respectable sort of man, of about forty, and was a Jew. Bessie and me he placed at machines side by side, and Eunice a little farther down the line. Then my first lesson began. He showed me how to thread bobbin and needle, how to operate ruffler and tucker, and also how to turn off and on the electric current which operated the machinery. My first attempt to do the latter was productive of a shock to the nerves that could not have been greater if, instead of pressing the harmless little lever under the machine with my knee, I had accidently exploded a bomb. The foreman laughed good-naturedly at my fright.
"You'll get used to it by and by," he shouted above the noise; "but like as not for a while you won't sleep very good nights—kind of nervous; but you'll get over that in a week or so," and he ducked his head under the machine to adjust the belt. Suddenly, above all the frenzied crashing of the machines came a sound, half scream, half cackle:
"Yi! yi! my pretty one, you'll get used to it by and by; you'll get used to anything in this world." It was an old woman's voice, and looking across the table, I saw a merry-eyed, toothless old crone, who was grinning and nodding at me.
"Hello! hello there, Miriam! what's eating you now?" shouted the foreman, emerging and scrambling to his feet as he turned to get Bessie started. But the strange old creature only grinned wider and screeched, "Yi! yi!" louder than ever.
But I had not time, either, to look at or listen to her now, as I leaned over the machine and practised at running a straight seam. Ah, the skill of these women and girls, and of the strange creature opposite, who can make a living at this torturing labor! How very different, how infinitely harder it is, as compared with running an ordinary sewing-machine. The goods that my nervous fingers tried to guide ran every wrong way. I had no control whatever over the fearful velocity with which the needle danced along the seam. In utter discouragement, I stopped trying for a moment, and watched the girl at my right. She was a swarthy, thick-lipped Jewess, of the type most common in such places, but I looked at her with awe and admiration. In Rachel Goldberg's case the making of muslin, lace-trimmed corset-covers was an art rather than a craft. She was a remarkable operator even among scores of experts at the R——. Under her stubby, ill-kept hands ruffles and tucks and insertion bands and lace frills were wrought with a beauty and softness of finish, and a speed and precision of workmanship, that made her the wonder and envy of the shop. And with what ease she seemed to do it all, despite the riveted eyes and tense-drawn muscles of her expressionless face! Suddenly her machine stopped, she looked up with a loud yawn, and stretched her arms above her head. She acknowledged the flattery of my look with a patronizing smile and a "How-do-you-think-you're-going-to-like-your-job?" I answered the conventional question in the usual way, and remarked that she sewed as if she had done it for ever and ever, and as if it were no work at all.
She shook her head. "Yes, I've worked a long time at it, but my shoulder aches as bad this morning as it did when I was a learner like you," and she pressed the power-lever and again bent over the tucking.
At my left Bessie was also practising on running seams, and a little farther down we saw poor Eunice struggling at the same hopeless lesson. The foreman, whose name proved to be Isaacs,—"Abe" Isaacs,—brought us our first "lot" of work. Mine consisted of six dozen coarse muslin corset-covers, which were already seamed together, and which I was shown how to "finish" with an embroidery yoke and ruffled edging about the arm's-eye. There is no basting, no pinning together of pieces; all the work is free-hand, and must be done with infinite exactness. I must hold the embroidery and the finishing strips of beading on the edge of the muslin with an exact nicety that will insure the edges of all three being caught in one seam; a process difficult enough on any sewing-machine, under any circumstances, but doubly so when the lightest touch sends the three-ply fabric under the needle with an incalculable velocity. Result of my first hour's work: I had spoiled a dozen garments. Try as I would, I invariably lost all control of my materials, and the needle plunged right and left—everywhere, in fact, except along the straight and narrow way laid out for it. And, to make matters still worse, I was painfully conscious that my old woman vis-a-vis was laughing at my distress with her irritating "Yi, yi!"
As I spoiled each garment I thrust it into the bottom of a green pasteboard box under the table, which held my allotment of work, and from the top of the box grabbed up a fresh piece. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that Bessie was doing the same thing, although what we were going to do with them, or how account for such wholesale devastation of goods, we were too perturbed to consider. At last, however, after repeated trials, and by guiding the seam with laborious care, I succeeded in completing one garment without disaster; and I had just started another, when—crash!—flying shuttles and spinning bobbins and swirling wheels came to a standstill. My sewing-machine was silent, as were all the others in the great workroom. Something had happened to the dynamo.
There was a howl of disappointment.
"Yi, yi!" screamed the old woman, throwing up her hands in a gesture of unutterable disgust; and then, catching my eye, her wrinkled old lips parted in a smile of friendly interest.
"How many did ye bungle?" she chuckled, leaning over and looking furtively up and down the room, as if afraid of being caught talking to me. I blushed in confusion that was half fright, and she raised a forefinger menacingly:
"Yi! yi! ye thought I didn't see ye sneaking the spoiled truck into the green box; but old Miriam's got sharp eyes, she has, and she likes to watch you young uns when you comes in first. You're not the only one. They all spoil lots before they learn to make a living out of it. There's lots like ye!" and stooping over, she drew a handful of my botched work out of the box and began to rip the stitching.
"That's all right; I'm glad to help ye!" she protested. "And sure, if we don't help each other, who's a-going to help us poor devils, I'd like to know?"
I, too, busied myself with the task of ripping, which I saw Bessie and Eunice were also doing; in fact, all the new-comers of the morning could be thus singled out. The practised hands availed themselves of the enforced rest by yawning and stretching their arms, and by comparing the earnings of the morning; for we all worked on piece-work. Rachel Goldberg had finished four dozen of extra-fine garments, which meant seventy-five cents, and it was not yet eleven o'clock. She would make at least one dollar and sixty cents before the day was over, provided we did not have any serious breakdowns. She watched the clock impatiently,—every minute she was idle meant a certain fraction of a penny lost,—and crouched sullenly over her machine for the signal.
"What are you thinking about, Miriam?" a frowsy-headed girl asked, giving the wink to the crowd.
The generous-hearted old lady looked up from the task she was helping me to do, and raising her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the gaslight, peered down the long line of girls until she placed the speaker.
"Yi, yi! Ye want to know what I'm thinking about? Well, mebbe, Beckie Frankenstein, I'm thinking what a beautiful world this is, and what a fine time you and me has," and the strange creature broke into a laugh that was more terrible than a sob.
"Ah, there you go again, Miriam! What's eatin' you to-day?" cried the foreman, as he came along to inspect the work; and seeing Miriam undoing my blunders, asked, "Who did that?"
Before I could put in a half-frightened acknowledgment, my intercessor had spoken up:
"And whose 'u'd them be but mine, Abe Isaacs?"—scowling at me to keep silence when I opened my mouth to contradict her.
The foreman looked incredulous. "You, Miriam! Do you mean to tell me it was you spoiled all that work? What's the matter with you to-day, anyway? If you don't do better, I'll have to fire you."
There was a good-natured tone, a kindly compassion, in Abe Isaacs's voice which was not in accord with the words; and when he turned and asked me what I had done, there was no fear in my heart. I answered by looking significantly at old Miriam.
"I thought as much," he muttered under his breath, and passed on to Bessie.
"Poor old Miriam, she's teched up here," one of the girls explained, tapping her forehead. "They say it was the old sweat-shops put her out of her mind, and I guess it's so, all right. My mother knows two ladies that was made crazy sewing pants up to Sternberg's. But that was long ago, when they used to treat the girls so bad. Things is ever so much better now, only Miriam can't get used to the improvements. She's a hundred years behind the times."
I was still lost in admiring wonder of Rachel Goldberg's skill. I asked her how long it would take me to learn to do it as well. She did not have a chance to answer before a harsh laugh was heard and a new voice asserted itself.
"Oh-ho! you'll never learn to work like her, and you'd better find it out now. I seen you running your machine, and I says to myself, 'That girl 'll never make her salt making underclothes.' Pants 'd be more in your line. To make money on muslin you've got to be born to 't."
"That's no lie, either," muttered another.
"You bet it ain't!" declared the expert Rachel. "My mother was working on shirts for a straight ten months before I was born."
In half an hour we had resumed work, and at half-past twelve we stopped for another half-hour and ate luncheon—Bessie, Eunice, and I in a corner by ourselves.
We held a conference, and compared notes of the morning's progress, which had been even more discouraging to poor Eunice than to us; for to her it had brought the added misfortune of a row of stitches in her right forefinger. We counted up our profits for the morning, and the aggregate earnings of the three of us did not amount to ten cents. Of course we would learn to do better, but it would take a long, long time, Bessie was firmly convinced, before we could even make enough to buy our lunches. It was decided that one of us should resign the job that night, and the other two keep at it until the delegate found something better for us all and had tested the new job to her satisfaction. Bessie was of course appointed, and the next morning Eunice and I went alone, with plausible excuses for the absent Bessie, for we had a certain delicacy about telling the real facts to so kind a foreman as "Abe."
The second day we had no better luck, and the pain between the shoulder-blades was unceasing. All night long I had tossed on my narrow cot, with aching back and nerves wrought up to such a tension that the moment I began to doze off I was wakened by a spasmodic jerk of the right arm as it reached forward to grasp a visionary strip of lace. That evening, as we filed out at six o'clock, Bessie was waiting for us, her gentle face full of radiance and good news. Even the miserable Eunice was affected by her hopefulness.
"Oh, girls, I've got something that's really good—three dollars a week while you're learning, and an awful nice shop; and just think, girls!—the hours—I never had anything like it before, and I've knocked around at eighteen different jobs—half-past eight to five, and—" she paused for breath to announce the glorious fact—"Girls, just think of it!—Saturday afternoons off, all the year round."
IN WHICH A TRAGIC FATE OVERTAKES MY "LADY-FRIENDS"
The next morning we met on the corner, as usual, and Bessie led us to our new job—led us through a world that was strange and new to both Eunice and me, though poor Eunice had little heart for the newness and the strangeness of it all. In and out, and criss-cross, we threaded our way through little narrow streets bordered with stately "sky-scrapers," and at last turned into Maiden Lane. We walked arm in arm till we came to an alley which Bessie said was Gold Street. It is more of a zigzag even than Maiden Lane, and is flanked by dark iron-shuttered warehouses and factories. Wolff's, our destination, was at the head of the street, and in a few minutes we were sitting side by side at the work-table, while our new forewoman, a cross-eyed Irish girl, was showing us what to do and how to do it.
Making jewel-and silverware-cases was now our work. In the long, whitewashed workroom there were thirty other girls performing the same task, and on each of the five floors beneath there were as many more girls, pasting and pressing and trimming cases that were to hold rings, watches and bracelets, and spoons, knives, and forks—enough to supply all Christendom, it seemed to me. As beginners we were given each a dozen spoon-boxes to cover with white leather and line with satin. It is light, pleasant work, and was such an improvement on the sweat-shop drudgery that even Eunice smiled a little after a while.
"Is youse lady-friends?" the forewoman asked when, in the course of ten minutes, she came to inspect our progress; on receiving an affirmative reply, she scowled.
"Fiddlesticks! If I'd knowed youse was lady-friends, I'd jist told Izzy he could get some other girls," and she walked off, still scowling. The girls about us giggled.
"Why doesn't Miss Gibbs like us to be lady-friends?" asked Bessie.
A young Italian answered, "Because they always git to scrappin'."
We all laughed—even Eunice—at such an ending to our friendship.
"We had a fearful row here yisterday," spoke up another; "and they wuz lady-friends—thicker than sardines, they wuz—till they got on the outs about a feller down on Pearl Street; a diamond-cutter he wuz, and they wuz both mashed on him—a Dutchman, too, he wuz, that wore ear-rings. I couldn't get mashed on a Dutchman, ear-rings or no ear-rings, could you?"
"What did they do?" asked Bessie.
"Do! They snapped at each other all morning over the work-table, and then one of them called the other a name that wuz something awful, and she up and spit in her face for it."
"Well, I don't blame that girl for spitting in her face," interrupted a voice. "I don't blame her; lady-like or not lady-like, I'd have done the same thing. I'd spit in the President's face if I was in the White House and he was to call me such a name!"
"And then what happened?" asked Bessie.
"Oh, they just up and at each other like two cats, tumbling over a stack of them there white velvet necklace-cases, and bloodying up each other's faces something fierce; and then Miss Gibbs she called Izzy; and Izzy he fired them on the spot."
Despite these tales of strenuous conflicts, we were happy in our work at Wolff's. Our shop-mates were quiet, decent-looking girls, and their conversation was conspicuously clean—not always a characteristic of their class. Miss Gibbs, despite her justifiable prejudice against lady-friends, proved not unkind, and we congratulated ourselves as we bent over our work and listened to the cheerful hum of voices.
After each case was finished,—after the satin linings and interlinings and the tuftings had been fitted and glued into their proper places, and the bit of leather drawn across the padded cover,—we could raise our eyes for a moment and look out upon a strange, fascinating world. The open windows on one side of the shop looked into the polishing-room of a neighboring goldsmith, and on the other side into a sunshiny workroom filled with swirling black wheels and flying belts among which the workmen kept up a dialogue in a foreign tongue. The latter place was near enough for a good-looking young man to attempt a flirtation with Bessie, in such moments as he was not carefully watching what seemed to be a clumsy mass of wax on the end of a wooden handle. All the long forenoon he kept up his manoeuvers, watching his ugly bludgeon as if it were the very apple of his eye; carrying it to the window one moment and examining it under the microscope; then carrying it back to his wheel and beginning all over again. Late in the afternoon he came to the window for the hundredth time, and brandishing the bludgeon so that the sunshine fell directly upon it, held it aloft for us to admire the great glittering gem that now sparkled deep-bedded in the ugly wax.
"I gif you dat if you marry me!" cried the diamond-cutter, striking a dramatic attitude for Bessie's benefit.
Thus one, two days passed swiftly, and we had learned to make jewel-cases with tolerable rapidity. We had a half-hour for luncheon, during which Bessie, Eunice, and I went off by ourselves to the rear of the shop, where we ate our sandwiches in silence and gazed out upon the forest of masts that filled the East River lying below.
On the fourth day Eunice and I ate luncheon alone. Bessie did not come that morning, nor send any excuse. Her absence gave me an opportunity, in this half-hour's respite from work, to get better acquainted with my silent and mysterious fellow-boarder; anything more than a most meager acquaintance was impossible at the place where we lived. Like the majority of semi-charitable institutions, the "home" was conducted on the theory that the only safety to morals, as well as to pocket-books, was espionage and isolation.
"It's awful up there, isn't it?" she remarked suddenly after we had discussed every possible cause for Bessie's absence.
"Yes, isn't it?" I replied, somewhat surprised, for this was the first time the girl had ever expressed any opinion about anything, so fearful did she seem of betraying herself.
"I suppose you often wonder what brought me there that night?" she went on. "You've told me your story, and you don't know anything at all about mine. You must often wonder, though you are too considerate to ask. But I'm going to tell you now without asking. It was to keep me from going there," pointing through the window down to the river.
"I'd had a lot of trouble,—oh, a terrible lot of trouble,—and it seemed as if there wasn't any place for me; and I walked down to the edge of the river up there at the end of East Fourteenth Street, and something stopped me just when I was ready to jump in. Why I didn't, I don't know," and the girl turned a stony face to the window.
"Why, it was hope and renewed courage, of course!" I replied quickly. "Everybody gets blue spells—when one is down on one's luck."
Eunice shook her head. "No, it wasn't hope. It was because I was afraid—it was because I'm a coward. I'm too much of a coward to live, and I'm too much of a coward to die. You never felt as I do. You couldn't. I've lost my grip on everything. Everything's gone against me, and it's too late now for things to change. You don't know—you don't know, you and Bessie. If you did, you'd see how useless all your kindness is, in trying to get me to brace up. I've tried—my God! I have tried to feel that there's a life before me, but I can't—I can't. Sometimes, maybe for a minute, I'll forget what's gone by, and then the next minute the memory of it all comes back with a fearful stab. There is something that won't let me forget."
"Hush! Eunice; don't talk so loud," I whispered as her passionate voice rose above the hum of the other girls in a far portion of the room.
"I tell you it's no use—it's no use. I've lost my grip on things, and I can never catch hold again. I thought, maybe, when I started out with you and Bessie, and got to working again, there'd be a change. But there isn't any difference now from—from the night I went into that dormitory first. Now with you it would be different. What's happened to me might, maybe, happen to you; but you could fight it down. There's something inside of you that's stronger than anything that can hurt you from the outside. Most girls are that way. They get hurt—and hurt bad, and they cry a lot at the time and are miserable and unhappy; but after a while they succeed in picking themselves up, and are in the end as good, sometimes better, than ever. They forget in a little while all about it, and wind up by marrying some man who is really in love with them, and they are as happy as if nothing had ever happened."
I looked at the occupant of cot No. 11 with mingled feelings of pity and amazement—pity for the hopelessness of her case, now more apparent than ever; amazement at her keen and morbid generalizations.
"How old are you, Eunice?"
"Twenty-four," she replied—"oh, I know what you're going to say: that I have my whole life before me, and all that. But I haven't. My life is all behind me."
"'I am the Captain of my Soul, I am the Master of my Fate,'"
"Yes, you are; but I am not," she replied simply, and turned and looked at me with her hopeless eyes.
Poor, unfortunate Eunice! That night, as we walked home together, she revealed a little more about herself by telling me that she had recently been discharged from the hospital on "the Island." I did not need to inquire the nature of the illness that had left her face so white and drawn. Brief as my experience had been among the humble inmates of the "home," I had learned the expediency of not being too solicitous regarding the precise facts of such cases.
The next day was Saturday, and still no Bessie. As we worked we speculated as to her absence, and decided to spend the afternoon looking her up. Meanwhile, although I had been managing to do my work a little better each day, Eunice had not been succeeding so well. Her apathy had been increasing daily, until she had lost any interest she might ever have had in trying to do her work well. On this morning the forewoman was obliged to give her repeated and sharp reproofs for soiling her materials and for dawdling over her work.
"You seem to like to work," Eunice said once, breaking a long silence.
"Not any better than you do, only I've got to, and I try to make the best of it."
"Yes, you do. You like to work, and I don't, and that's the difference between us. And it's all the difference in the world, too. If I liked work for its own sake, like you do, there'd be some hope for me living things down."
"I wonder," she whispered, again breaking a long silence—"I wonder if Bessie had any man after her."
I looked up suddenly, perhaps indignantly, and my reply was not encouraging to any conjectures along this line, as Eunice saw quickly.
"I'm sorry I offended you," she added hastily; "but I didn't think anything wrong of Bessie—you know I didn't. Only I've watched the boss following her around with his eyes ever since we came here to work. You didn't see, for you don't know as much about their devilment as I do; but I tell you, if anything was ever to happen that poor little girl through any man, I'd choke him to death with my own hands!"
The satin-tufted box she was working on dropped from her fingers and clattered on the floor, bringing the forewoman down upon her with many caustic remarks. When the flurry was over I assured her that I thought Bessie fully capable of taking care of herself, although I had seen more of the manager's advances than Eunice gave me credit for observing.
At last noon came, and with it our first half-holiday. With the first shriek of the whistle we jumped up and began folding our aprons, preparatory to rushing out to find Bessie.
"Where does she live?" asked Eunice.
I looked at her in blank amazement, for I didn't know. I had never even heard the name of the street. I knew it was somewhere on the East Side; that was all. In all our weeks of acquaintanceship no occasion had arisen whereby Bessie should mention where she lived. I thought of Rosenfeld's. Perhaps some one there might know, and we took a Broadway car up-town. But Miss Higgins was away on her vacation, and none of the girls who still remained in the flower-shop knew any more about Bessie's whereabouts than I did. Thus it is in the busy, workaday world. Nobody knows where you come from, and nobody knows where you go. Eunice suggested looking in the directory; but as we found forty of the same name, it seemed hopeless. I did happen to know, however, that her father had once been a cutter or tailor; and so out of the forty we selected all the likeliest names and began a general canvass. After five hours of weary search, and after climbing the stairs of more than a score of tenement-houses, without success, we turned at last into East Broadway, footsore and dusty. In this street, on the fifth floor of a baking tenement, we tapped at the door of Bessie's home. A little blonde woman answered the knock, and when we asked for Bessie she burst into sobs and pointed to a red placard on the door—the quarantine notice of the Board of Health, which we had not seen. And then Bessie's mother told us that four of her brood had been laid low with malignant diphtheria. The three younger ones were home, sick unto death, but they had yielded to the entreaties of the doctor and allowed him to take Bessie to Bellevue. Thither we hurried as fast as the trolley would take us, only to find the gates closed for the day. We were not relatives, we had no permits; and whether Bessie were dead or alive, we must wait until visiting-hours the next day to discover.
What we found out the next day, when we filed into the superintendent's office with the ill-dressed horde of anxious Sunday-afternoon visitors, was hardly a surprise. We expected nothing but what Eunice had predicted from the first. Bessie had died the night before—died murmuring about poppies, the young doctor told us.
"She's better off where she is than she'd be down at Wolff's," said Eunice, as we passed through the gates on to the street again. I made no comment, and we walked silently away from the big, ugly brick pile that holds such horrors for the poor. When we reached Third Avenue, Eunice stopped before a florist's window, and we looked in at a cluster of great white lilies. Neither spoke, however, and in a moment we passed on down Third Avenue, now brightly lighted and teeming with its usual gay Sunday night crowd. At last we turned into our own street, and were in front of the dark building we both called "home." Here Eunice caught my hand in hers, with a convulsive little motion, as might a child who was afraid of the dark. We climbed the stone steps together, and I pulled the bell, Eunice's grasp on my hand growing tighter and tighter.
"Good-by; it's no use," she whispered suddenly, dropping my hand and moving away as we heard the matron fumbling at the lock; and before I could utter a word of protest, before I could reach forward and snatch her from some dread thing, I knew not what, she had disappeared among the shadows of the lamplit street.
"Where's the other girl?" asked the matron.
"I don't know," I replied,—nor have I since been able to find the faintest clue to her whereabouts, if living, or her fate, if dead. From that moment at the door-step when she said good-by, Eunice stepped out of my life as completely as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up. Is she dead or alive? Did the unhappy girl seek self-destruction that June night, or was she swept into that great, black whirlpool, the name of which even a girl of the workaday world mentions always with bated breath? I do not know. I never expect to know the fate of Eunice. It is only in stories that such things are made clear, usually, and this was only an incident in real life.
I BECOME A "SHAKER" IN A STEAM-LAUNDRY
The next day, Monday, they buried Bessie in a big, shabby Jewish cemetery out on Long Island. I did not follow my comrade to the grave. Nor did I go to work. All that long, beautiful June day was spent in fruitless search for poor Eunice.
This hopeless quest, begun on Monday, was continued for three days in the few hours that I could snatch between five o'clock, the closing-time at the shop, and ten o'clock, the curfew hour at the "home." On Wednesday the strain grew unbearable. All the associations of Wolff's were tinctured with memories of the dead Bessie and the lost Eunice. Under the counter, in the big pasteboard box, their checked-gingham aprons were still rolled up just as they had left them, with the scissors inside; and on the pine table under my eyes were their names and mine, scrawled in a lead-pencil by Bessie's hand, and framed with heavy lines. Their high stools, which were on either side of mine, had been given over to two new-comers, also "lady-friends," who chewed gum vigorously and discussed beaux and excursions to Coney Island with a happy vivacity that made my secret misery all the harder to bear. That night I went to the desk and drew my money, tucked the two aprons away in a bundle with my own, and said good-by to Wolff's. The sum total of my capital now amounted to five dollars; and with this I felt that I could afford to spend the remainder of the week trying to find Eunice, and trust to luck to get taken back at Wolff's the following Monday morning.
After three days' systematic inquiry, I climbed the stairs to the dormitory late on Sunday night, no wiser than I had been a week before. My discouragement gave way to a thrill of joyous surprise when I descried a long, thin form stretched under the gray blanket of Eunice's cot. I sprang forward and laid an eager hand on the thin shoulder.
"Gr-r-r! Don't you try gettin' fresh, Susie Jane, er I'll smash yer face!" snarled the angry voice of a new-comer, as she pulled the coverlet up to her eyes and rolled over on the other side.
Monday morning I presented myself at the jewel-case factory, and asked Miss Gibbs to take me back. But I was already adjudged a "shiftless lot," not steady, and was accordingly "turned down." Then once more I scanned the advertising columns.
"Shakers Wanted.—Apply to Foreman" was the first that caught my eye. I didn't know what a "shaker" was, but that did not deter me from forming a sudden determination to be one. The address took me into a street up-town—above Twenty-third Street—the exact locality I hesitate to give for reasons that shortly will become obvious. Here I found the "Pearl Laundry," a broad brick building, grim as a fortress, and fortified by a breastwork of laundry-wagons backed up to the curb and disgorging their contents of dirty clothes. Making my way as best I could through the jam of horses and drivers and baskets, I reached the narrow, unpainted pine door marked, "Employees' Entrance," and filed up the stairs with a crowd of other girls—all, like myself, seeking work.
At the head of the stairs we filed into a mammoth steam-filled room that occupied an entire floor. The foreman made quick work of us. Thirty-two girls I counted as they stepped up to the pale-faced, stoop-shouldered young fellow, who addressed each one as "Sally," in a tone which, despite its good-natured familiarity, was none the less businesslike and respectful. At last it came my turn.
"Hello, Sally! Ever shook?"
"Ever work in a laundry?"
"No; but I'm very handy."
"What did you work at last?"
"All right, Sally; we'll start you in at three and a half a week, and maybe we'll give you four dollars after you get broke in to the work.—Go over there, where you seen them other ladies go," he called after me as I moved away, and waved his hand toward a pine-board partition. Here, sitting on bundles of soiled linen and on hampers, my thirty-two predecessors were corralled, each awaiting assignment to duty. They were dressed, literally, "some in rags and some in tags and some in velvet gowns." Calico wrappers brushed against greasy satin skirts, and faded kimono dressing-jackets vied in filth and slovenliness with unbelted shirt-waists. A faded rose bobbed in one girl's head, and on another's locks was arranged a gorgeous fillet of pale-blue ribbon of the style advertised at the time in every shop-window in New York as the "Du Barry." The scene was a sorry burlesque on the boudoir and the ball-room, a grim travesty on the sordid realities of the kitchen on wash-day.
"Did yez come in the barber's wagon?" asked a stupid Irish girl, looking at me curiously. I looked blank, and she repeated the question.
"What does she mean?" I asked a more intelligent girl who was seated on a bundle in the corner.
"Didn't yez come in Tony's wagon?"
"No; who's Tony?"
"Oh, Tony he's a barber—a Ginny barber—that goes out with a wagon when they run short of help, and he picks up any girls he can find and hauls them in. He brought three loads this morning. We thought Tony picked you up. Me and her," pointing to a black-browed girl who was nodding to sleep with her mouth wide open, "we come in the barber's wagon."
The girl's face, fat, heavy, dough-colored, had become suffused with amiability, and giving her snoozing comrade a gentle push, she made room for me on the bundle beside her.
"Ever worked at this job before?" she asked.
"No. Have you?"
She replied with a sharp laugh, and flinging back the sleeve of her kimono, thrust out the stump of a wrist. At my exclamation of horror, she grinned.
"Why, that's nothing in this here business," she said. "It happens every wunst in a while, when you was running the mangles and was tired. That's the way it was with me: I was clean done out, one Saturday night, and I jist couldn't see no more; and first thing I know—Wo-o-ow! and that hand went right straight clean into the rollers. And I was jist tired, that's all. I didn't have nothing to drink all that day, excepting pop; but the boss he swore I was drunk, and he made the foreman swear the same thing, and so I didn't try to get no damages. They sent me to the horspital, and they offered me my old job back again; but I jist got up my spunk and says if they can't pay me some damages, and goes and swears I was drunk when I didn't have nothing but rotten pop, I says, I can up and go some place else and get my four dollars a week."
Before I could ask what the poor creature would be able to do with only one hand, the foreman appeared in the door, and we trooped out at his heels. Down the length of the big room, through a maze of moving hand-trucks and tables and rattling mangles, we followed him to the extreme rear, where he deposited us, in groups of five and six, at the big tables that were ranged from wall to wall and heaped high with wet clothes, still twisted just as they were turned out of the steam-wringer. An old woman with a bent back showed me the very simple process of "shaking."
"Jist take the corners like this,"—suiting the action to the word,—"and give a shake like this, and pile them on top o' one another—like this," and with that she turned to her own "shaking" and resumed gossip with her side-partner, another old woman, who was roundly denouncing the "trash" that was being thrust upon her as table-mates, and throwing out palpable insults to the "Ginnies" who stood vis-a-vis, and who either didn't hear or, hearing, didn't understand or care.
For the first half-hour I shook napkins bearing the familiar legend—woven in red—of a ubiquitous dairy-lunch place, and the next half-hour was occupied with bed-linen bearing the mark of a famous hostelry. During that time I had become fairly accustomed to my new surroundings, and was now able to distinguish, out of the steamy turmoil, the general features of a place that seethed with life and action. All the workers were women and girls, with the exception of the fifteen big, black, burly negroes who operated the tubs and the wringers which were ranged along the rear wall on a platform that ran parallel with and a little behind the shakers' tables. The negroes were stripped to the waist of all save a thin gauze undershirt. There was something demoniacal in their gestures and shouts as they ran about the vats of boiling soap-suds, from which they transferred the clothes to the swirling wringers, and then dumped them at last upon the big trucks. The latter were pushed away by relays of girls, who strained at the heavy load. The contents of the trucks were dumped first on the shakers' tables, and when each piece was smoothed out we—the shakers—redumped the stacks into the truck, which was pushed on to the manglers, who ironed it all out in the hot rolls. So, after several other dumpings and redumpings, the various lots were tied and labeled.