THE LONG DAY
The Story of a New York Working Girl * * As Told by Herself
New York The Century Co. 1905
Copyright, 1905, by The Century Co.
Published October, 1905
The Devinne Press
TO MY THREE "LADY-FRIENDS"
Happy, fortunate Minnie; Bessie, of gentle memory; and that other, silent figure in the tragedy of Failure, the long-lost, erring Eunice, with the hope that, if she still lives, her eye may chance to fall upon this page, and reading the message of this book, she may heed.
I IN WHICH I ARRIVE IN NEW YORK 3
II IN WHICH I START OUT IN QUEST OF WORK 16
III I TRY "LIGHT" HOUSEKEEPING IN A FOURTEENTH-STREET LODGING-HOUSE 27
IV WHEREIN FATE BRINGS ME GOOD FORTUNE IN ONE HAND AND DISASTER IN THE OTHER 44
V IN WHICH I AM "LEARNED" BY PHOEBE IN THE ART OF BOX-MAKING 58
VI IN WHICH PHOEBE AND MRS. SMITH HOLD FORTH UPON MUSIC AND LITERATURE 75
VII IN WHICH I ACQUIRE A STORY-BOOK NAME AND MAKE THE ACQUAINTANCE OF MISS HENRIETTA MANNERS 92
VIII WHEREIN I WALK THROUGH DARK AND DEVIOUS WAYS WITH HENRIETTA MANNERS 108
IX INTRODUCING HENRIETTA'S "SPECIAL GENTLEMAN-FRIEND" 123
X IN WHICH I FIND MYSELF A HOMELESS WANDERER IN THE NIGHT 142
XI I BECOME AN "INMATE" OF A HOME FOR WORKING GIRLS 151
XII IN WHICH I SPEND A HAPPY FOUR WEEKS MAKING ARTIFICIAL FLOWERS 180
XIII THREE "LADY-FRIENDS," AND THE ADVENTURES THAT BEFALL THEM 197
XIV IN WHICH A TRAGIC FATE OVERTAKES MY "LADY-FRIENDS" 215
XV I BECOME A "SHAKER" IN A STEAM-LAUNDRY 229
XVI IN WHICH IT IS PROVED TO ME THAT THE DARKEST HOUR COMES JUST BEFORE THE DAWN 249
THE LONG DAY
IN WHICH I ARRIVE IN NEW YORK
The rain was falling in great gray blobs upon the skylight of the little room in which I opened my eyes on that February morning whence dates the chronological beginning of this autobiography. The jangle of a bell had awakened me, and its harsh, discordant echoes were still trembling upon the chill gloom of the daybreak. Lying there, I wondered whether I had really heard a bell ringing, or had only dreamed it. Everything about me was so strange, so painfully new. Never before had I waked to find myself in that dreary, windowless little room, and never before had I lain in that narrow, unfriendly bed.
Staring hard at the streaming skylight, I tried to think, to recall some one of the circumstances that might possibly account for my having entered that room and for my having laid me down on that cot. When? and how? and why? How inexplicable it all was in those first dazed moments after that rude awakening! And then, as the fantasies of a dream gradually assume a certain vague order in the waking recollection, there came to me a confused consciousness of the events of the preceding twenty-four hours—the long journey and the weariness of it; the interminable frieze of flying landscape, with its dreary, snow-covered stretches blurred with black towns; the shriek of the locomotive as it plunged through the darkness; the tolling of ferry-bells, and then, at last, the slow sailing over a black river toward and into a giant city that hung splendid upon the purple night, turret upon turret, and tower upon tower, their myriad lights burning side by side with the stars, a city such as the prophets saw in visions, a city such as dreamy childhood conjures up in the muster of summer clouds at sunset.
Suddenly out of this chaotic recollection of unearthly splendors came the memory, sharp and pinching, of a new-made grave on a wind-swept hill in western Pennsylvania. With equal suddenness, too, the fugue of thundering locomotives, and shrieking whistles, and sad, sweet tollings of ferry-bells massed itself into the clangorous music of a terrifying monody—"WORK OR STARVE, WORK OR STARVE!"
And then I remembered! An unskilled, friendless, almost penniless girl of eighteen, utterly alone in the world, I was a stranger in a strange city which I had not yet so much as seen by daylight. I was a waif and a stray in the mighty city of New York. Here I had come to live and to toil—out of the placid monotony of a country town into the storm and stress of the wide, wide, workaday world. Very wide awake now, I jumped out of bed upon the cold oil-cloth and touched a match to the pile of paper and kindling-wood in the small stove. There was a little puddle of water in the middle of the floor under the skylight, and the drip in falling had brushed against the sleeve of my shirt-waist and soaked into the soles of my only pair of shoes. I dressed as quickly as the cold and my sodden garments permitted. On the washstand I found a small tin ewer and a small tin basin to match, and I dabbed myself gingerly in the cold, stale water.
Another jangle of the harsh bell, and I went down dark stairs to the basement and to breakfast, wondering if I should be able to recognize Miss Jamison; for I had caught but a glimpse of my new landlady on my arrival the previous midnight. Wrapped in a faded French flannel kimono, her face smeared with cold cream, her hair done up in curling "kids," she had met and arranged terms with me on the landing in front of her bedroom door as the housemaid conducted me aloft. Making due allowance for the youth-and-beauty-destroying effects of the kimono, curling "kids," and cold cream, and substituting in their stead a snug corset, an undulated pompadour, and a powdered countenance, respectively, I knew about what to look for in the daylight Miss Jamison. A short, plump, blonde lady in the middle forties, I predicted to myself. The secretary of the Young Women's Christian Association, to which I had written some weeks before for information as to respectable and cheap boarding-houses, had responded with a number of names and addresses, among them that of Miss Elmira Jamison, "a lady of very high Christian ideals."
Miss Jamison was no disappointment. She fulfilled perfectly all my preconceived notions of what she would look like when properly attired. Spying me the moment I got inside the dining-room door, she immediately pounced upon me and hurried me off to a seat, when a girl in a dirty white apron began to unload off a tray a clatter of small dishes under my nose, while another servant tossed a wet, warm napkin upon my plate. My breakfast consisted of heterogeneous little dabs of things in the collection of dishes, and which I ate with not the greatest relish in the world.
There were several score of breakfasters in the two big rooms, which seemed to occupy the entire basement floor. They ate at little tables set uncomfortably close together. Gradually my general observations narrowed down to the people at my own table. I noticed a young man opposite who wore eye-glasses and a carefully brushed beard; an old lady, with a cataract in her left eye, who sat at the far end of the table; a little fidgety, stupid-looking, and very ugly woman who sat next the bearded young man; and a young girl, with dancing, roguish black eyes, who sat beside me. The bearded young man talked at a great rate, and judging from the cackling laughter of the fidgety woman and the intensely interested expression of the cataracted lady, the subject was one of absorbing interest.
Gradually I discovered that the topic of discourse was none other than our common hostess and landlady; and gradually, too, I found myself listening to the history of Miss Elmira Jamison's career as a purveyor of bed and board to impecunious and homeless mortals.
Five years ago Miss Jamison had come into this shabby though eminently respectable neighborhood, and opened a small boarding-house in a neighboring street. She had come from some up-State country town, and her bureaus and bedsteads were barely enough to furnish the small, old-fashioned house which she took for a term of years. Miss Jamison was a genius—a genius of the type peculiar to the age in which we live. She wasn't the "slob" that she looked. The epithet is not mine, but that of the young gentleman to whom I am indebted for this information. No, indeed; Miss Jamison was anything but a "slob," as one soon found out who had occasion to deal with her very long. A shrewd, exacting, penny-for-penny and dollar-for-dollar business woman was concealed under the mask of her good-natured face and air of motherly solicitude. Miss Jamison, at the very start-out of her career, was inspired to call her little "snide" boarding-house after the founder of the particular creed professed by the congregation of the neighboring church. The result was that "The Calvin" immediately became filled with homeless Presbyterians, or the homeless friends and acquaintances of Presbyterians. They not only filled her house, but they overflowed, and to preserve the overflow Miss Jamison rented the adjoining house.
Miss Jamison was now a successful boarding-house keeper on a scale large enough to have satisfied the aspirations of a less clever woman. But she longed for other denominations to feed and house. Of the assortment that offered themselves, she chose the Methodists next, and soon had several flourishing houses running under the pious appellation "Wesley," which name, memorialized in large black letters on a brass sign, soon became a veritable magnet to board-seeking Methodism.
The third and last venture of the energetic lady, and the one from which she was to derive her largest percentage of revenue, was the establishment of the place of which I had so recently become an inmate. Of all three of Miss Jamison's boarding-houses, this was the largest and withal the cheapest and most democratic: in which characteristics it but partook of the nature of the particular sort of church-going public it wished to attract, which was none other than the heterodox element which flocked in vast numbers to All People's church. The All People's edifice was a big, unsightly brick building. It had been originally designed for a roller-skating rink.
All People's, as the church was colloquially named, was one of the most popular places of worship in the city. Every Sunday, both at morning and evening services, the big rink was packed to the doors with people who were attracted quite as much by the good music as they were by the popular preaching of the very popular divine. A large percentage of this great congregation was recruited from the transient element of population which lives in lodgings and boarding-houses. From its democracy and lack of all ceremony, it was a church which appealed particularly to those who were without ties or affiliations. Into this sanctuary the lonely young man (or girl) of a church-going temperament was almost sure to drift sooner or later if his probationary period of strangerhood happened to fall in this section of the city.
The clever Miss Jamison put a sign bearing the legend, "All People's," on each of the doors of six houses, opposite the church, which she acquired one by one as her business increased. The homeless and lonely who came to All People's for spiritual refreshment, or to gratify their curiosity, remained to patronize Miss Jamison's "special Sunday" thirty-five-cent table d'hote, served in the basement of one house; or bought a meal-ticket for four dollars, which entitled them to twenty-one meals served in the basement of another of the houses; or for the sum of five dollars and upward insured themselves the privilege of a week's lodging and three meals a day served in still another of the basements.
Such is the history of Miss Jamison as detailed at the breakfast-table that Sunday morning.
I went out for a walk late in the afternoon, and wandered about, homesick and lonely. When I returned dinner was over and the dining-room almost deserted, only a few remaining to gossip over their dessert and coffee. At my table all had gone save the young girl with the dark eyes, who, I felt instinctively, was a very nice and agreeable girl. As I approached the table, she raised her eyes from the book she was reading and gave me a diffident little bow, when, seeing I was so glad to respond to it, she immediately smiled in a friendly way.
From the glimpse I had caught of her during the morning meal, I had thought her very pretty in a smart, stiffly starched, mannish-looking shirt-waist. That night she looked even prettier, clad in a close-fitting cloth gown of dark wine-color. I noticed, too, as I sat down beside her, that she was an unusually big woman.
"How do you like the boarding-house by this time?" she asked, with an encouraging smile, to which I responded as approvingly as I could in the remembrance of the cheerless hall bedroom far above, and in the presence of the unappetizing dinner spread before me.
"Well, I think it's rotten, if you'll excuse my French," laughed Miss Plympton, as she cut a square of butter off the common dish and passed it to me. "And I guess you think so, too, only you're too polite to roast the grub like the rest of us do. But you'll get over that in time. I was just the same way when I first begun living in boarding-houses, but I've got bravely over that now.
"I've been here just a little over a week myself," she went on in her frank and engaging manner. "I saw you this morning, and I just knew how you felt. I thought I'd die of homesickness when I came. Not a soul spoke to me for four days. Not that anybody would want to particularly get acquainted with these cattle, only I'm one of the sort that has got to have somebody to speak to. So this morning I said to myself, when I saw you, that I'd put on nerve and up and speak to you even if you did turn me down. And that's why I waited for you to-night."
I responded that I was glad she had been so informal; absence of formality being the meaning I interpreted from her slang, which was much more up-to-date and much more vigorous than that to which I had been accustomed in the speech of a small country village. As I ate, we talked. We talked a little about a great many things in which we were not at all interested, and a very great deal about ourselves and the hazards of fortune which had brought our lives together and crossed them thus at Miss Jamison's supper-table,—subjects into which we entered with all the zest and happy egotism of youth. Of this egotism I had the greater preponderance, probably because of my three or four years' less experience of life. Before we rose from the table I had told Miss Plympton the story of my life as it had been lived thus far.
Of her own story, all I knew was that she was a Westerner, that she had worked a while in Chicago, and had come to New York on a mission similar to my own—to look for a job. We went together to her room, which was as small and shabby as my own, and a few minutes later we were sitting round the little Jenny Lind stove, listening to the pleasant crackle of the freshly kindled fire. Both were silent for a few minutes. Then my new friend spoke.
"What does that put you in mind of?" she asked slowly.
"You mean the crackle of the kindling-wood and the snap of the coal as the flames begin to lick it?" I asked.
"U-m-m, yes; the crackle of the wood and the snap of the coal," said the girl in a dreamy tone.
"Home!" I cried, quick as a flash. "It makes me think of home—of the home I used to have," and my eyes blurred.
"Here, too! Home!" she replied softly. "Funny, isn't it, that we have so many ideas exactly alike? But I suppose that's because we were both brought up in the country."
"In the country!" I exclaimed in surprise. "I thought you were from Chicago."
"Oh, no; I'm from the country. I didn't go to Chicago till I was twenty. I lived all my life on a farm in Iowa, till I went up to get a job in Chicago after my father died and I was all alone in the world. We lived in the very wildest part of the State—in the part they call the 'Big Woods.' Oh, I know all about frontier life. And there's hardly any kind of 'roughing it' that I haven't done. I was born to it."
She laughed, opening the stove door, for the elbow of the pipe was now red-hot and threatening conflagration to the thin board partition behind, which divided the little room from that of the next lodger.
A loud thump upon the board partition startled us. We listened for a few moments,—at first with alarm,—and then realized that the noise was only the protest of a sleepy boarder.
Presently, as we continued to talk, the banging of a shoe-heel on the wall grew more insistent. We heard doors opening along the hall, and a high, raucous voice invoked quiet in none too polite phrase. So I said, "Good night," in a whisper and tiptoed to my own door.
Thus began my acquaintance with Minnie Plympton—an acquaintance which, ripening later into a warm friendship, was to have an incalculable influence upon my life.
IN WHICH I START OUT IN QUEST OF WORK
When I woke up the next morning it was to find a weight of homesickness lying heavy upon my heart—homesickness for something which, alas! no longer existed save in memory. Then I remembered the girl on the floor below, and soon I was dressing with a light heart, eager to hurry down to breakfast. I was somewhat disappointed to find that she had eaten her breakfast and gone. I went out upon the stoop, hailed a newsboy, and sought my skylight bedroom.
It was with a hope born of youth and inexperience that I now gave systematic attention to "HELP WANTED—Female." I will confess that at first I was ambitious to do only what I chose to esteem "lady-like" employment. I had taught one winter in the village school back home, and my pride and intelligence naturally prompted me to a desire to do something in which I could use my head, my tongue, my wits—anything, in fact, rather than my hands. The advertisements I answered all held out inducements of genteel or semi-genteel nature—ladies' companions; young women to read aloud to blind gentlemen and to invalids; assistants in doctors' and dentists' offices, and for the reception-room of photograph galleries. All of them requested answers in "own handwriting, by mail only." I replied to scores of such with no success.
There was also another kind of illusive advertisement which I answered in prodigal numbers in the greenness of these early days. These were those deceitfully worded requests for "bright, intelligent ladies—no canvassing." And not less prodigal were the returns I got. They came in avalanches by every mail, from patent-medicine concerns, subscription-book publishers, novelty manufacturers—all in search of canvassers to peddle their trash.
I might have saved much superfluous effort, and saved myself many postage-stamps, had I been fortunate enough to have had the advice of Miss Plympton throughout this first week. But Miss Plympton had gone away for several days. I had not seen her since we had parted on Sunday night; but Monday evening, when I went to the table, I found a hasty note saying she had gone out of town to see about a job, and would see me later. That was all. I found myself longing for her more and more as the week wore away.
Meanwhile, however, I did not allow the sentiment of an interrupted acquaintance to interfere with my quest for a job, nor did I sit idle in Miss Jamison's boarding-house waiting for replies. I had only a few dollars in the world, and on the other side of those few dollars I saw starvation staring me in the face unless I found work very soon. I planned my search for work as systematically as I might have conducted a house-cleaning. As soon as each day's grist of "wants" was sifted and a certain quota disposed of by letter, I set out to make personal applications to such as required it. This I found to be an even more discouraging business than the epistolary process, as it was bitterly cold and the streets were filled with slush and snow. The distances were interminable, and each day found my little hoard dwindling away with frightful rapidity into innumerable car-fares and frequent cups of coffee at wayside lunch-counters. I traveled over miles and miles of territory, by trolley-car, by elevated train and ferry-boat, to Brooklyn, to Harlem, to Jersey City and Newark, only to reach my destination cold and hungry, and to be interviewed by a seedy man with a patent stove-lifter, a shirt-waist belt, a contrivance for holding up a lady's train, or a new-fangled mop—anything, everything that a persistent agent might sell to the spendthrift wife of an American workingman.
By the end of the week I was obliged to hunt for another boarding-house as well as continue the search for work. My little bedroom under the skylight, and three meals per day of none too plentiful and wretchedly cooked food, required the deposit of five dollars a week in advance. With but a few dollars left in my purse, and the prospect of work still far off, nothing in the world seemed so desirable as that I might be able to pass the remainder of my days in Miss Jamison's house, and that I might be able to breakfast indefinitely in her dark basement dining-room.
Sunday morning came around again. I had been a week in the city, and was apparently no nearer to earning a livelihood than the day I started out. I had gained a little experience, but it had been at the cost of nearly five precious dollars, all spent in street-car fare and postage-stamps; of miles and miles of walking through muddy, slushy streets; and at the sacrifice of my noon lunch, which I could have had done up for me at the boarding-house without extra charge, but which my silly vanity did not allow me to carry around under my arm.
Sunday morning again, and still no Miss Plympton. She was under discussion when I reached the breakfast-table. The lady with the cataract and her friend were speaking of how well she always dressed, and one of them wondered how she managed to do it, since she had no visible means of support. Dr. Perkins didn't seem to relish the turn the conversation had taken, and suddenly he fell completely out of it. But the gossips clacked on regardless, until they were brought to a standstill by a peremptory exclamation from the end of the table.
"Excuse me," spoke up the doctor, dryly, "but I'll have to ask you to change the subject. You are talking about a young lady of whom you know absolutely nothing!"
The scandal-mongers finished breakfast in silence and soon shuffled away in their bedroom slippers.
"Old cats!" said the doctor, energetically. "Boarding-house life breeds them. A boarding-house is no place for anybody. It perverts all the natural instincts, mental, moral, and physical. You'd hardly believe it, but I've lived in boarding-houses so long that I can't digest really wholesome food any more."
When at last we rose to go, he handed me a card upon which I later read this astonishing inscription in heavy black type: "PAINLESS PERKINS"; and, in smaller type underneath, the information that the extracting or filling of molars; crown and bridge work; or the fitting of artificial teeth, would be done by Painless Perkins in a "Particularly Pleasing Way," and that he was "Predisposed to Popular Prices."
With no books to read, and no advertisements to answer, and no friend with whom to gossip, the day stretched before me a weary, dreary waste, when I happened to think of the church across the way, something of the history of which I had heard from Painless Perkins. And so I joined the crowd of strangers who were pouring into the doors of "All People's" to the music of a sweet-toned bell.
I was there early, but the auditorium was packed, and I was ushered to a camp-chair in the aisle. The crowd was not suggestive of fashionable New York, though there were present many fine-looking, well-groomed men and women. But nearly everybody was neatly and decently if not well dressed. Many of the faces looked as sad and lonely as I felt. They appeared to be strangers—homeless wanderers who had come here to church not so much for worship as to come in touch with human beings. I was too tired, too discouraged even to hear what the earnest-voiced preacher said. The two girls sitting directly in front of me listened intently, as they passed a little bag of peppermints back and forth, and I envied them the friendship which that furtive bag of peppermints betokened. If I had had any prospect of getting a job the following week, I too could have listened to the preacher. As it was, my ears were attuned only to the terrifying refrain which had haunted me all week: "WORK OR STARVE, WORK OR STARVE!" After a while I tried to rouse myself and to take in the sermon which was holding the great congregation breathless. It was about the Good Samaritan. I heard a few sentences. Then the preacher's voice was lost once more in that insistent refrain.
Dinner at noon and supper in the evening in the dark house across the street, and still my friend was absent. The scandal-mongers were as busy as ever, for Painless Perkins was away.
Monday morning I made my way eastward on foot, across Union Square. The snow had been falling all night and was still sifting down in big, flowery flakes. The trees under their soft, feathery burdens looked like those that grow only in a child's picture-book. The slat-benches were covered with soft white blankets that were as yet undisturbed, for the habitual bench tramp was not abroad so early in the morning.
I was up extraordinarily early, as I started out on a double search. The first item on my list—"Board and room, good neighborhood, $3.00"—took me south across Fourteenth Street, choked and congested with the morning traffic. The pavements were filled with hurrying crowds—factory-hands, mill-girls, mechanics—the vanguard of the great labor army. I hunted for Mrs. McGinniss's residence in a street which pays little attention to the formality of numbers. An interview with a milk-cart driver brought the discouraging news that I might find it somewhere between First and Second avenues, and I hurried on down the street, which stretched away and dipped in the far distance under the framework of the elevated railroad. The stoop-line on either side presented an interminable vista of small, squalid shops, meat-markets, and saloons.
Wedged between a paper-box factory and a blacksmith's shop I found Mrs. McGinniss's number. It was a five-story red-brick tenement, like all the others that rise above the stoop-line of this poverty-stricken street. A soiled scrap of paper pasted beneath the button informed possible visitors that Mrs. McGinniss lived on the fifth floor, that her bell was out of order, and that one should "Push Guggenheim's."
The Guggenheims responded with a click from above. I ascended a flight of dark stairs, at the top of which there was ranged an ambuscade of numerous small Guggenheims who had gushed out in their underdrawers and petticoats. Their mother, in curl-papers, gave explicit directions for my guidance upward.
"Is this where Mrs. McGinniss lives?" I inquired of the dropsical slattern who responded to my rap.
Mrs. McGinniss's manner was aggressive. Conscious of her bare, sodden arms and dripping gingham apron, she evidently supposed I had mistaken her for a laundress instead of the lady of her own house, and she showed her resentment by chilly reticence.
"I don't run no boarding-house, and I don't take just any trash that come along, either."
I agreed that these were excellent qualities in a landlady, and then, somewhat mollified, she led the way through a steamy passage into a stuffy bedroom. It had one window, looking out into an air-shaft filled with lines of fluttering garments and a network of fire-escapes. A slat-bed, a bureau, a washstand with a noseless pitcher, and a much-spotted Brussels carpet completed the furnishings, and out of all exuded ancient odors of boiled cabbage and soap-suds.
"There's one thing, though, I won't stand for, and that's cigarettes. I've had the last girl in my house that smokes cigarettes I'm going to have. Look at that nice carpet! Look at it! All burned full of holes where that trollop throwed her matches."
I hurried away, with a polite promise to consider the McGinniss accommodations.
The abode of Mrs. Cunningham was but a few blocks away. Mrs. Cunningham did not live in a flat, but in the comparative gentility of "up-stairs rooms" over a gaudy undertaking establishment. She proved to be an Irish lady with a gin-laden breath. Her eyes were blue and bleared, and looked in kindly fashion through a pair of large-rimmed and much-mended spectacles, from which one of the glasses had totally disappeared. She was affable, and responded to my questions with almost maudlin tenderness, calling me "dearie" throughout the interview. Her little parlor was hung with chromo reproductions of great religious paintings, and the close atmosphere was redolent of the heavy perfume of lilies and stale tuberoses. Remarking the unusual prodigality of flowers, the good lady explained that the undertaker beneath was in the habit of showing his esteem by the daily tender of such funeral decorations as had served their purpose. Mrs. Cunningham's accommodations at four dollars per week were beyond my purse, however; but, as she was willing to talk all day, my exit was made with difficulty.
The remainder of that day and a good part of the days that followed were spent in interviewing all manner of landladies, most of whom, like Mrs. McGinniss's bell, were disordered physically or mentally. Heartsick, I decided by Saturday to take blind chances with the janitress of a Fourteenth-street lodging-house. She had a cleft palate, and all I could understand of her mutilated talk was that the room would be one dollar a week with "light-housekeeping" privileges thrown in. I had either to pay Miss Jamison another five dollars that next morning or take chances here. I took the hazard, paid the necessary one dollar to the more or less inarticulate woman, and went back to Miss Jamison's to get my baggage and to eat the one dinner that was still due me—not forgetting to leave a little note for the still absent Minnie Plympton, giving her my new address.
I TRY "LIGHT" HOUSEKEEPING IN A FOURTEENTH-STREET LODGING-HOUSE
Bedtime found me thoroughly settled in my new quarters, and myself in quite an optimistic frame of mind as I drew close to the most fearfully and wonderfully mutilated little cook-stove that ever cheered the heart of a lonely Fourteenth-street "light housekeeper." In the red-hot glow of its presence, and with the inspiring example of courage and fortitude which it presented, how could I have felt otherwise than optimistic? It was such a tiny mite of a stove, and it seemed to have had such a world of misfortune and bad luck! There was something whimsically, almost pathetically, human about it. This, it so pleased my fancy to believe, was because of the sufferings it had borne. Its little body cracked and warped and rust-eaten, the isinglass lights in its door long since punched out by the ruthless poker, the door itself swung to on the broken hinge by a twisted nail—a brave, bright, merry little cripple of a stove, standing on short wooden legs. I made the interesting discovery that it was a stove of the feminine persuasion; "Little Lottie" was the name which I spelled out in the broken letters that it wore across its glowing heart. And straightway Little Lottie became more human than ever—poor Little Lottie, the one solitary bright and cheerful object within these four smoke-grimed walls which I had elected to make my home.
Home! The tears started at the mere recollection of the word. The firelight that flickered through the broken door showed an ironical contrast between the home that now was and that which once had been, and to which I looked back with such loving thoughts that night. A narrow wooden bedstead, as battered and crippled as Little Lottie, but without the latter's air of sympathy and companionship; a tremulous kitchen table; a long box set on end and curtained off with a bit of faded calico, a single chair with a mended leg—these rude conveniences comprised my total list of housekeeping effects, not forgetting, of course, the dish-pan, the stubby broom, and the coal-scuttle, along with the scanty assortment of thick, chipped dishes and the pots and pans on the shelf behind the calico curtain. There was no bureau, only a waved bit of looking-glass over the sink in the corner. My wardrobe was strung along the row of nails behind the door, a modest array of petticoats and skirts and shirt-waists, with a winter coat and a felt sailor-hat. Beneath them, set at right angles to the corner, was the little old-fashioned swell-top trunk, which precaution prompted me to drag before the door. It had been my mother's trunk, and this was the first journey it had made since it carried her bridal finery to and from the Philadelphia Centennial. In the quiet, uneventful years that followed it had reposed in a big, roomy old garret, undisturbed save at the annual spring house-cleaning, or when we children played "The Mistletoe Bough" and hid in it the skeleton which had descended to us as a relic of our grandfather's student days.
What a change for the little old trunk and what a change for me the last twelve months had brought about! After the door had been further barricaded by piling the chair on top of the trunk, and the coal-scuttle on top of the chair, I blew out the evil-smelling lamp and crept with fear and trembling into a most inhospitable-looking bed. It received my slight weight with a groan, and creaked dismally every time I stirred. Through the thin mattress I could feel the slats, that seemed hard bands of pain across my tired body.
From where I was lying I could look straight into Little Lottie's heart, now a steady, glowing mass of coals. Little Lottie invited me to retrospection. How different it all was in reality from what I had imagined it would be! In the story-books it is always so alluring—this coming to a great city to seek one's fortune. A year ago I had been teaching in a little school-house among my Pennsylvania hills, and I recalled now, very vividly, how I used to love, on just such cold winter nights as this, when the wind whistled at every keyhole of the farm-house where I boarded during the school year to pull my rocking-chair into the chimney-corner and read magazine stories about girls who lived in hall bedrooms on little or nothing a week; and of what good times they had, or seemed to have, with never being quite certain where the next meal was to come from, or whether it was to come at all.
I was wakened by the rattle of dishes, the clatter of pots and pans, and the rancid odor of frying bacon, bespeaking the fact that somebody's breakfast was under way in the next room to mine. I stepped across the bare, cold floor to the window, and, rolling up the sagging black-muslin blind, looked out upon the world. Bleak and unbeautiful was the prospect that presented itself through the interstices of the spiral fire-escape—a narrow vista strung with clothes-lines and buttressed all about with the rear walls of high, gaunt, tottering tenements, the dirty windows of which were filled with frowzy-headed women and children. Something interesting was going on below, for in a moment every window was thrown up, and a score of heads leaned far out. I followed suit.
In the sloppy, slush-filled courtyard below two untidy women were engaged in coarse vituperation that shortly led to blows. The window next to mine was quickly raised, and I drew back to escape being included in the category of curious spectators to this disgraceful scene—but too late.
"What's the row?" a voice asked with friendly familiarity. It was the girl who had been frying the bacon, and she still held a greasy knife in her hand. I answered that I did not know. She was very young, hardly more than sixteen. She had a coarse, bold, stupid face, topped by a heavy black pompadour that completely concealed any forehead she might be supposed to possess. She was decidedly an ill-looking girl; but the young fellow in his shirt-sleeves who now stuck his head out of the window alongside of hers was infinitely more so. He had a weak face, covered with pimples, and the bridge of his nose was broken; but, despite these manifest facial defects, and notwithstanding the squalor of his surroundings, a very high collar and a red necktie gave him the unmistakable air of the cheap dandy. Again I gave a civil evasion to the girl's trivial question, and as I did so her companion, looking over her frowzy pompadour, stared at me with insolent familiarity. I jerked my head in hurriedly, and, shutting the window, turned my attention to Little Lottie. It was not long before my tea-kettle was singing merrily. I was about to sit down to the first meal in my new abode, when an insinuating rat-tat sounded on the door. I opened it to find the ill-looking young fellow leaning languidly against the door-jamb, a cigarette between his teeth.
"What do you wish?" I asked, in my most matter-of-fact manner.
He puffed some smoke in my face, then took the cigarette from his mouth and looked at me, evidently at a loss for an answer.
"The girl in there wants to know if you'll loan her one of your plates," he replied at last.
"I am sorry," I said, with freezing politeness—"I am very sorry, but I have only one plate, and I'll need that myself," and I closed the door.
After breakfast I walked up to First Avenue to lay in my provisions for the day—a loaf of bread, a quart of potatoes, a quarter of a pound of butter, and two cents' worth of milk. Never in my life before had I bought anything on the Sabbath day, and never before had I seen a place of business open for trade on that day. My people had not been sternly religious people, and, theoretically, I didn't think I was doing anything wicked; yet I felt, as I gave my order to the groceryman, as though I were violating every sacred tradition of birth and breeding. After that I tried to do all necessary marketing the day before, and if I needed anything on Sunday I made myself go without it.
Returning with my unholy provisions tucked under my arm and a broken-nosed blue pitcher deftly concealed under my protecting cape, I made my first daylight inventory of that block of Fourteenth Street where I lived. On each corner stood a gaudy saloon, surmounted by a Raines law hotel. It seemed to have been at one time the abode of fashion, for though both ends of the block were supported by business buildings, the entire middle presented a solid front of brownstone, broken at intervals by long flights of steps leading to handsome, though long-neglected black-walnut doors. The basements were given over to trade.
On the stairs I was brought face to face again with my sinister-looking young man. I looked straight ahead, so as to avoid his eyes. But I found the way blocked, as he stretched his arms from banister to wall.
"What's the matter with you?" he began coaxingly. "Say, I'll take you to the theater, if you want to go. What do you say to 'The Jolly Grass Widows' to-morrow night?"
Thoroughly frightened, I responded to the unwarranted invitation by retreating two steps down the stairs, whereupon the young ruffian jumped down and grasped the arm in which I held my packages. I don't know what nerved me up to such a heroic defense, but in the twinkling of an eye he fell sprawling down the stairs, followed by the flying remnants of my landlady's milk-pitcher. Then I ran up the remaining two flights as fast as my feet would carry me, and landed in the midst of an altercation between the inarticulate landlady and my girl neighbor. In passing, I could make out enough of the wrangle to understand that the latter was being ordered out of the house.
When quietness had been restored, there was a tap at my door. I demanded the name of my visitor in as brave a voice as I could command. "Mrs. Pringle," returned the broken voice of the landlady. I saw, when I opened the door, that she wanted to talk to me. I also saw, what I had not noticed in my hasty interview the night before, that she was superior to most of the women of her class. She had been grimy and unkempt the night before, after her long week's work of sweeping and cleaning and coal-carrying; but to-day, in her clean wrapper and smooth gray hair, there was a pathetic Sabbath-day air of cleanliness about her spare, bent figure. Somehow, I felt that she would not be so very angry when I explained about the pitcher, and I invited her in with genuine cordiality.
She listened in silence to my story, her knotted hands folded upon her starched gingham apron.
"That's all right!" she replied, a smile lighting up her tired face. "I'm just glad you broke the pitcher over that vile fellow's head."
"You know him, then?" I suggested.
She shook her head. "No, I don't know him, but I know the bad lot he belongs to. I've just warned this girl in here to leave as soon as she can pack her things. I gave her back her rent-money. She only come day afore yesterday, and I supposed she was an honest working-girl or I'd never have took her. She pretended to me she was a skirt-hand, and it turns out she's nothin' but a common trollop. And I hated to turn her out, too, even if she did talk back to me something awful. She can't be more 'n sixteen; but, somehow or t' other, when a girl like that goes to be bad, there ain't no use trying to reason 'em out of it. You come from the country, don't you?"
There was a kindly curiosity mirrored in the dim, sunken eyes which surveyed me steadily, a lingering accent of repressed tenderness in her voice, and I did not deem it beneath my dignity to tell this decent, motherly soul my little story.
She listened attentively. "I knowed you were a well-brought-up young woman the moment I laid eyes on you," she began, the maimed words falling gently from her lips, despite the high, cracked voice in which they were spoken. "And I knowed you was from the country, too; so I did. You don't mind, honey, do you, if I speak sort of plain with you, being as I'm an old woman and you just a slip of a girl? Do you, now?"
I replied that she might speak just as plainly as she liked with me and I would take no offense, and then she smiled approvingly upon me and drew her little checked breakfast-shawl closer about her sunken bosom.
"I like to hear you say that," she went on, "because so many girls won't listen to a word of advice—least of all when it comes from an old woman that they thinks don't know as much as they does. They don't relish being told how careful they ought to be about the people they get acquainted with. Now I'm talking to you just as if you was one of my own. You may think you are wise, and all that,—and you are a bright sort of girl, I'll give you credit for that, only this is such a wicked city. A young girl like you, with no folks of her own to go to when she's discouraged and blue, 'll find plenty and to spare that'll be willing to lead her off. This is a bad neighborhood you're in, and you got to be mighty careful about yourself. Forewarned is forearmed, as you've heard tell before; and I have saw so many young girls go wrong that I felt could have been saved if somebody had just up and talked straight at them in the beginning, like I'm talking here to you. I had a girl here in this house two years agone. A pretty girl she was, and she was from the country too. Somewheres up in Connecticut she come from. She was a nice, innocent girl too, so she was, when she come here to rent a room. This very room you've got was the one she had. Just as quiet and modest and respectful spoken to her elders as you are, she was. She worked down in St. Mark's Place. She was a cap-maker and got four dollars a week. She started out to live honest, for she'd been brought up decent. Her father, she told me when she come here, was a blacksmith in some of them little country towns up there. She thought she could make lots of money to come down here to work, and that she could have a fine time; and I guess she was terrible disappointed when she found just how things really was. She hankered for fine clothes and to go to theaters, and there wasn't any chanst for neither on four dollars a week. By and by, though, she did get to going out some with a young fellow that worked where she did. He was a nice, decent young fellow, and I'll warrant you she could have married him if she had acted wise and sensible; and he'd like as not have made her a good provider. I don't blame the men out and out, as some folks do; and I say that when a young fellow sees that a girl 'll let him act free with her, he just says to himself she'll let other fellows act free with her, and then he don't want to marry her, no difference how much he might have thought of her to begin with. That's what, I think, started this girl going wrong. At first he'd just bring her to the door when they'd be out to the theater, but by and by she got to taking him up to her room. Now it's none of my business to interfere with people's comings and goings in this house, being as I'm only the janitress. I have my orders from the boss—who's a real nice sort of man—to only rent rooms to respectable people, and to put anybody out where I knows there's bad conduct going on. He's strong on morals, the boss is. He used to be a saloon-keeper, and the Salvation Army converted him; and then he sold out and went into this business. He has this place, and then he has a boarding-house on Second Avenue. These Germans are awful kind men, when they are kind, and Mr. Schneider has did a lot of good. If any of his tenants get sick and can't pay their rent, or if they get out of work, he don't bounce them into the street, but he just tells them to stay on and pay him when they get caught up; and would you believe it that he never loses a cent, either!"
Here the woman stopped for breath, which gave me an opportunity to turn the channel of her talk back to the girl from Connecticut.
"Well, I didn't have no right to tell the girl that she mustn't take her gentleman friend to her room, because there ain't no law again it in any light-housekeeping rooms. The people who live here are all working-people and earn their livings; and they've got a right to do as they please so they're quiet and respectable. But I took it on myself to kind of let the girl understand that her beau would think more of her if she just dropped him at the front door. A man 'll always pick a spunky, independent girl that sort of keeps him at a stand-off every time, anyway. She looked sort of miffed when I said this, and then I said that she could set up with him any time she wanted in my sitting-room in the basement, what is real comfortable furnished and pretty-looking—and which you too is perfectly welcome to bring any gentleman company to any time you've a mind.
"Well, she looked at me sort of scornful, and answered me real peart-like, and said she guessed she could take care of herself. She tossed her head in a pretty taking way she had, and walked down-stairs, as though I had turribly insulted her; so what could I do?"
Again she paused, panting for breath in short, wheezy gasps.
"And what became of her at last?" I asked.
"What became of her!" she echoed. "What becomes of all of 'em?" and she jerked her head significantly in the vague direction of the street. "She left soon after that, though I never said another word to her, but just kept on bidding her the time of day, as if nothing had ever passed between us. I felt turrible about her leaving, too; and I tried to persuade her she was making a mistake by leaving a house that she knowed was decent and where she could manage to live within her means. Oh, you don't know how I felt for days and weeks after she went. I knew how good she was when she come to this house, and I kept thinking how my Annie might have been just as foolish and heedless if she'd been throwed amongst strangers and had the same temptations. I don't know where she went exactly. She didn't give me much satisfaction about it, and I never seen her again, till one morning this winter, when I went out to bring in my ash-cans, I run right into her. It was real early in the morning, just getting daylight. I always get up at five o'clock winter and summer, because I'm used to it; and then I've got to, so's to get the work done, for I can't work fast with my rheumatics. It was hardly light enough yet for me to recognize her right away, and she did look so forlorn and pitiful-like walking there so early in the morning in the snow. It had snowed in the night, and it was the first we'd had this season. She didn't see me at first. She was walking slow,—real slow and lingering-like,—like them poor things do. I was standing at the top of the stairs in the areaway, and her face was turned across the street, as if she was expecting somebody. I tried to speak to her, but sometimes something catches me when I'm strong moved and I can't sound a word for several moments. And that's the way I was struck that morning. I started to run after her; then I thought better of it, and sort of guessed she'd turn around at the corner and come back. So I went to the cans and made believe to be turrible interested in them, and when I looked up, sure enough she had started back again, and I had caught her eye.
"Thinking of Annie, I bade her the time of day real friendly-like, just as though everything was all right, and I asked her to come in and have a bite of breakfast. I'd left the coffee on the stove, and had fried myself a nice mess of onions. She looked sort of half shamed and half grateful, and had started to come with me, when all of a sudden she stopped and said she guessed she couldn't that morning. Then she strolled off again. I picked up my ash-cans and started down-stairs, but I wasn't half-way down when I saw her hurrying along the other side of the street with a man I'd seen come round the corner by Skelly's saloon while we was talking together. And I never saw her again."
An expression of pathos, infinitely sweet and tender, had crept into the woman's thin, worn face—an expression in strange, almost ludicrous, contrast to the high, cracked voice in which the talc had been delivered. I gazed at the bent old creature with something like reverence for the nobility which I now could read so plainly in every line of her face—the nobility which can attach itself only to decency of life and thought and action. In my brief interview with her in the twilight of the evening before I had heard only the ridiculous jargon of a woman without a palate, and I had seen only an old crone with a soot-smeared face. But now the maimed voice echoed in my ears like the sound of the little old melodeon with the broken strings—which had been my mother's.
"I must be going now," she said, rising with an effort. "You'll come down and see me sometimes, won't you, honey? I like young people. They sort of cheer me up when I feel down. Come down this afternoon, if you haven't got any place to go. Come down and I'll lend you some books."
I thanked her, and promised I would.
WHEREIN FATE BRINGS ME GOOD FORTUNE IN ONE HAND AND DISASTER IN THE OTHER
Monday morning—a cheerless, bleak Monday morning, with the rain falling upon the slush-filled streets. I ate a hurried breakfast of bread and butter and black coffee, locked my door, and started out with renewed vigor to look for a job. I had learned by this time to use a little discrimination in answering advertisements; and from now on I paid attention to such prospective employers only as stated the nature of their business and gave a street number.
I had also learned another important thing, and that was that I could not afford to be too particular about the nature of my job, as I watched my small capital diminish day by day, despite my frugality. I would have been glad, now, to get work at anything that promised the chance of a meager livelihood. Anything to get a foothold. The chief obstacle seemed to be my inexperience. I could obtain plenty of work which in time promised to pay me five dollars a week, but in the two or three months' time necessary to acquire dexterity I should have starved to death, for I had not money to carry me over this critical period.
Work was plenty enough. It nearly always is so. The question was not how to get a job, but how to live by such jobs as I could get. The low wages offered to green hands—two and a half to three dollars a week—might do for the girl who lived at home; but I had to pay room-rent and car-fare and to buy food. So, as long as my small capital could be made to hold out I continued my search for something that would pay at least five dollars a week to begin with.
On Monday night I was no nearer to being a bread-winner than when I had started out for the first time from Miss Jamison's boarding-house. I climbed the bare stairs at nightfall, and as I fumbled at the keyhole I could hear the click of a typewriter in the room next to mine. My room was quite dark, but there was a patch of dim white on the floor that sent a thrill of gladness all over me. I lighted the lamp and tore open the precious envelop before taking off my gloves or hat. It was a note from Minnie Plympton, saying she had got employment as demonstrator for a cereal-food company, and was making a tour of the small New England cities. The letter was dated at Bangor, Maine, and she asked me to write her at Portland, where she expected to be all week; and which I did, at considerable length, after I had cooked and eaten my supper.
Bread and butter and black coffee for breakfast, and potato-soup and bread and butter for supper, with plain bread and butter done up in a piece of paper and carried with me for luncheon—this was my daily menu for the weeks that followed, varied on two occasions by the purchase of a half-pint of New Orleans molasses.
The advertisements for cigar and cigarette workers were very numerous; and as that sounded like humble work, I thought I might stand a better chance in that line than any other. Accordingly I applied to the foreman of a factory in Avenue A, who wanted "bunch-makers." He heard my petition in a drafty hallway through which a small army of boys and girls were pouring, each one stopping to insert a key in a time-register. They were just coming to work, for I was very early. The foreman, a young German, cut me off unceremoniously by asking to see my working-card; and when I looked at him blankly, for I hadn't a ghost of an idea what he meant, he strode away in disgust, leaving me to conjecture as to his meaning.
Nothing daunted, however, for I meant to be very energetic and brave that morning, I went to the next factory. Here they wanted "labelers," and as this sounded easy, I approached the foreman with something like confidence. He asked what experience I'd had, and I gave him a truthful reply.
"Sorry, but we're not running any kindergarten here," he replied curtly and turned away.
I was still determined that I'd join the rank of cigar-makers. Somehow, they impressed me as a very prosperous lot of people, and there was something pungent and wholesome in the smell of the big, bright workrooms.
The third foreman I besought was an elderly German with a paternal manner. He listened to me kindly, said I looked quick, and offered to put me on as an apprentice, explaining with much pomposity that cigar-making was a very difficult trade, at which I must serve a three years' apprenticeship before I could become a member of the union and entitled to draw union wages. I left him feeling very humble, and likewise disillusioned of my cigar-making ambitions.
"Girls wanted to learn binding and folding—paid while learning." The address took me to Brooklyn Bridge and down a strange, dark thoroughfare running toward the East River. Above was the great bridge, unreal, fairy-like in the morning mist. I was looking for Rose Street, which proved to be a zigzag alley that wriggled through one of the great bridge arches into a world of book-binderies. Rose Street was choked with moving carts loaded with yellow-back literature done up in bales. The superintendent proved to be a civil young man. He did not need me before Monday, but he told me to come back that day at half-past seven and to bring a bone paper-cutter with me. He paid only three dollars a week, and I accepted, but with the hope that as this was only Thursday, and not yet nine o'clock, I might find something better in the meantime.
A Brooklyn merchant was in need of two "salesladies—experience not necessary." A trolley-car swirled me across the river, now glistering in the spring sunshine. We were hurtled down interminable vistas of small shops, always under the grim iron trestle of the elevated railroad. At the end of an hour I entered the "Majestic," a small store stocked with trash. After much dickering, Mr. Lindbloom and his wife decided I'd do at three and a half dollars per week, working from seven in the morning till nine in the evening, Saturdays till midnight. I departed with the vow that if I must work and starve, I should not do both in Lindbloom's.
Five cents got me back to Cortlandt Street in Manhattan, where I called upon a candy-manufacturer who wanted bonbon-makers. The French foreman, in snowy cap and apron, received me in a great room dazzling with white-tile walls and floor, and filled with bright-eyed girls, also in caps and aprons, and working before marble tables. The Frenchman was polite and apologetic, but they never hired any but experienced workers.
It was half-past three, and I had two more names on my list. Rose-making sounded attractive, and I walked all the way up to Bond Street. Shabby and prosaic, this street, strangely enough, has been selected as the forcing-ground or nursery of artificial flowers. Its signs on both sides, even unto the top floor, proclaim some specialization of fashionable millinery—flowers, feathers, aigrets, wire hat-frames. On the third floor, rear, of a once fashionable mansion, now fallen into decay, I stumbled into a room, radiantly scarlet with roses. The jangling bell attached to the door aroused no curiosity whatever in the white-faced girls bending over these gay garlands. It was a signal, though, for a thick-set beetle-browed young fellow to bounce in from the next room and curtly demand my business.
"We only pay a dollar and a half to learners," he said, smiling unpleasantly over large yellow teeth. I fled in dismay. Down Broadway, along Bleecker, and up squalid Thompson Street I hurried to a paper-box factory.
The office of E. Springer & Company was in pleasant contrast to the flower sweat-shop, for all its bright colors. So, too, was there a grateful comparison between the Jew of the ugly smile and the portly young man who sat behind a glass partition and acknowledged my entrance by glancing up from his ledger. The remark he made was evidently witty and not intended for my ears, for it made the assistant bookkeeper—a woman—and the two women typewriters laugh and crane their necks in my direction. The bookkeeper climbed down from his high stool and opened the glass door. He was as kind now as he was formerly merry. Possibly he had seen my chin quiver the least bit, and knew I was almost ready to cry. He did not ask many questions; but presently he sent one typewriter flying up-stairs for the superintendent, and the other was sent to ask of the forewoman if all the jobs were filled. The superintendent proved to be a woman, shrewd, keen-faced, and bespectacled. The forewoman sent down word that No. 105 had not rung up that morning, and that I could have her key. The pay was three dollars a week to learners, but Miss Price, the superintendent, thought I could learn in a week's time, which opinion the portly gentleman heartily indorsed, and so I allowed him to enroll my name. He gave me a key, showed me how to "ring up" in the register at the foot of the stairs, and told me that henceforth I should be known as "105."
I thanked him in as steady a voice as I could command, and reached the street door on the stroke of six, just in time to hear my shopmates of the morrow laughing and scrambling down-stairs in their mad effort to get away from that which I had been trying to obtain for so many weeks.
The street I stepped into had been transformed. Behind my blurred vision, as I hurried along, I saw no squalor, no wretchedness now. Through tears of thankfulness the houses, the streets, and the hurrying people were all glorified, all transfigured. Everything was right—the whole world and everybody in it.
Thus I sped homeward on that eventful evening, eager to tell my good news to Mrs. Pringle, who, I knew, would be glad to hear it. As I drew near the block where I lived, I became half conscious of something strange and unusual in the atmosphere; I felt the strange sensation of being lost, of being in the wrong place. Men and women stood about in silent knots, and through the deep twilight I felt rather than heard the deep throbbing of fire-engines. Pressing through the little knots of men and women, I stood before the red mass of embers and watched the firemen pour their quenching streams upon the ashes of my lodging-house.
Dazed, stupefied, I asked questions of the bystanders. But nobody knew anything definite. One man said he guessed a good many lives had been lost; the woman next to him said she'd heard the number was five.
The houses on both sides were still standing, the windows smashed in, and the tenants fled. There seemed to be not even a neighbor who might know of the fate of my lodging-house acquaintance or of my good friend Mrs. Pringle. I spoke to a policeman. He listened gently, and then conducted me to a house in Fifteenth Street, where they had offered shelter for the night to any refugees who might desire it.
The basement of this house had been turned into a dormitory, one section for the men and the other for the women, who were in greater number and came straggling in one by one. A man-servant in livery passed hot coffee and sandwiches, which we swallowed mechanically, regarding one another and our surroundings with stupid bewilderment. I had never met any of these people before, though they had all been my fellow-lodgers.
The girl sitting on the cot next to mine passed her cup up for more coffee, and as she did so turned a quizzical gaze upon me. She was stupid and ugly. Her quizzical look deepened into curiosity, and by and by she asked:
"Youse didn't live there too, did youse?"
Our common misfortune inspired me to a cordial reply, and we fell into a discussion of the catastrophe. Her English was so sadly perverted and her voice so guttural that I could make out her meaning only with the greatest exercise of the imagination. But it was to the effect that the fire had started in a room on the top floor, whither poor old Mrs. Pringle had gone about three o'clock in the afternoon with a bucket of coal for the fire. Just what happened nobody knew. Every one on the top floor at the time had perished, including Mrs. Pringle.
"Didn't youse get nothin' out, neither?" asked my companion. And then it dawned upon me for the first time that I had nothing in all the world now but the clothes on my back and the promise of work on the morrow.
"Yes, I have lost everything," I answered.
"Youse got anything in the bank?" she pursued.
The question seemed to me ironical and not worthy of notice.
"I have. I've got 'most five hundred dollars saved up," she went on.
"Five hundred dollars!"
The girl nodded. "Huh, that's what! I could live tony if I wanted, but I like to save my money. I makes good money, too,—twelve dollars a week,—and I don't spend it, neither."
"What do you do?" I asked, regarding the large, rough hands with something like admiration for their earning abilities.
"I'm a lady-buffer," she answered, with a touch of pride.
"A lady-buffer! What's that?" I cried, looking at the slovenly, dirt-streaked wrapper and the shabby golf-cape that had slipped from her shoulders to the cot. She regarded me with pity for my ignorance, and then delivered herself of an axiom.
"A lady-buffer is a lady what buffs." And, to render the definition still more explicit, she rolled up the sleeve of her wrapper, showed me mighty biceps, and then with her arm performed several rapid revolutions in midair.
"What do you buff?" I next ventured.
This laconic reply squelched me completely, and I subsided without further conversation.
Despite my weariness, there was little sleep for me that night. Affairs had come to a crisis; my condition was about as bad as it could possibly be. Whatever was going to become of me? Why, in the name of all common sense, had I ever come to New York? Why was I not content to remain a country school-ma'am, in a place where a country school-ma'am was looked up to as something of a personage? That night, if I had had enough money to buy a ticket back to the town I had come from, my fate would have been settled definitely then and there.
Not the least distressing part of my condition was the fact that there was really no help for me save what I should be able to give myself. To be sure, I had certain distant relatives and friends who had warned me against my flight to the city, and to whom I might have written begging for money sufficient to carry me back to my native place, and the money, with many "I-told-you-so's," would have been forthcoming. To return discredited was more than my pride could bear. I had to earn my livelihood anyway, and so, on this night of grim adversity, owing my very bed and supper to charity, I set my teeth, and closed my tired lids over the tears I could not hide, and swore I'd fight it out alone, so long as I had strength to stand and heart to hope; and then there was the prospect of a job at Springer's on the morrow, though the wage would hardly keep body and soul together.
The next morning, while her servants were giving us our breakfast, a stately middle-aged woman came down to the basement and passed among us, making inquiries regarding our various conditions, and offering words of well-meant, if patronizing, advice and suggestion wherever she thought them needed, but which somehow did not seem to be relished as her more material kindness had been. When it came my turn to be interviewed I answered her many questions frankly and promptly, and, encouraged by the evident interest which she displayed in my case, I was prompted to ask her if she might know of any place where I could get work. She looked at me a moment out of fine, clear eyes.
"You would not go into service, I suppose?" she asked slowly.
I had never thought of such an alternative before, but I met it without a moment's hesitation. "No, I would not care to go into service," I replied, and as I did so the lady's face showed mingled disappointment and disgust.
"That is too bad," she answered, "for in that case I'm afraid I can do nothing for you." And with that she went out of the room, leaving me, I must confess, not sorry for having thus bluntly declared against wearing the definite badge of servitude.
IN WHICH I AM "LEARNED" BY PHOEBE IN THE ART OF BOX-MAKING
The "lady-buffer" and I were the last to leave the house. We went out together and parted company at Third Avenue, she going south to her work, and I continuing along the street westward. The catastrophe of the preceding day seemed to have entirely evaporated from her memory; she seemed also to have forgotten the incident of our meeting and conversation of the night before, for she made no comment, nor even gave me a parting greeting.
I was inclined to reproach such heartlessness as I hurried along, when suddenly it was borne in upon my consciousness that it was I, not she, who was open to that charge. Here I was, speeding along to my work with hope in my heart, sometimes almost forgetting that the woman who had been so kind to me was probably lying in the morgue, awaiting burial in the Potter's Field, unless saved from that ignoble end by some friend. And yet I was powerless. I could not even spare time to go to the morgue or to make inquiries. I knew not a soul who could have helped me, and I had only one dollar and a half in all the world, no place to sleep that night, no change of garments, nothing except the promise of work that morning at Springer's. I stopped at the corner, strongly tempted by my innate sense of decency to the memory of the dead. But only for a moment: the law of life—self-preservation—again asserted itself, and for the time being I put the past behind me and hurried on toward Thompson Street.
It lacked but a few minutes of eight o'clock when, at last, I turned into the squalid street at the end of which stands Springer's. In the sunshine of the mild March morning the facade of the tall buff building looked for all the world like a gaunt, ugly, unkempt hag, frowning between bleared old eyes that seemed to coax—nay, rather to coerce me into entering her awful house.
The instant impression was one of repulsion, and the impulse was to run away. But there was fascination, too, in the hag-like visage of those grim brick walls, checkered with innumerable dirty windows and trussed up, like a paralytic old crone, with rusty fire-escapes. It was the fascination of the mysterious and of the evil; and, repulsive and forbidding as was its general aspect, nothing could now have induced me to turn back. Instinct told me that I was about to enter into no commonplace experience. And so, unresisting, I was borne along in the swift current of humanity that was swept down the street, like the water in a mill-race, to turn the wheels of workshop and factory. Before Springer's a great arm of this human mill-stream eddied inward, to be lost in another moment in the vortex of the wide black doors, whence issued muffled sounds of the pandemonium within. At the last moment I hesitated, obsessed once more with the indefinable horror of it all. Again there was the strong impulse to run away—far, far away from Springer's and from Thompson Street, when suddenly the old monody began to ring in my ears, "WORK OR STARVE, WORK OR STARVE!" Another moment, and I too had passed within the wide black doors.
The entrance passage was lighted by a sickly gas-jet, and in its flicker a horde of loud-mouthed girls were making frantic efforts to insert their keys in the time-register. I was jostled and tumbled over unceremoniously. I was pushed and punched unmercifully by the crowding elbows, until I found myself squeezed tight against the wall. From the scrambling and confusion it was evident everybody was late, and tones and language attested to racked nerves and querulous tempers. Suddenly there was a scuffle and the sharp scraping of feet on the floor.
"Get out, yez dirty Irish!" rang out in the stifling air.
"I wuz here fust!" snarled another voice.
"Call me dirty Irish ag'in and I'll dirty Irish you."
The black-haired girl had accepted the challenge, and the maligned daughter of Erin, cheeks aflame and eyes blazing, rushed at her detractor with clenched fist.
"Go for her, Rosie! She's nothin' but a dirty black Ginney, nohow!"
"Pitch into her, Celie! Punch her!" yelled a chorus from the stairs who came swooping down from above, attracted by the scrimmage, and just in time to see the combatants rush at each other in a hand-to-hand struggle, punctuated with loud oaths.
The noise suddenly subsided at the screeching of a raucous nasal voice.
"Well, young ladies! What does this mean?" demanded the superintendent, and Rosie and Celie both began to talk at once.
"Never mind about the rest of it," snapped Miss Price, cutting the tale short. "I'll dock you both half a day's pay: and the next time it happens you'll both be fired on the spot."
Then Miss Price turned to me, while the now silent wranglers meekly turned their keys in the register and marched up-stairs, whither their respective factions had since disappeared.
"I do hope to goodness you ain't high-tempered like some is," she remarked, with an effort toward affability, as we stepped before the time-register, where I inserted my key for the first time. "All I got to say is, don't get into no fights with the girls. When they say things to you, don't talk back. It's them that just takes things as they come, and lets bygones be bygones, that get the good checks at the end of the week. Some of them fight more 'n they work, but I guess you won't be that kind," she concluded, with an unctuous smile, displaying two rows of false teeth. Then, with a quick, nervous, jerky gait, she hopped up the flight of rough plank stairs, threw open a door, and ushered me into the bedlam noises of the "loft," where, amid the roar of machinery and the hum of innumerable voices, I was to meet my prospective forewoman.
"Miss Kinzer! Here's a lady wants to learn," shrilled the high nasal voice. "Miss Kinzer! Where's Miss Kinzer? Oh, here you are!" as a young woman emerged from behind a pile of pasteboard boxes. "I've a learner for you, Miss Kinzer. She's a green girl, but she looks likely, and I want you to give her a good chance. Better put her on table-work to begin with." And with that injunction the little old maid hopped away, leaving me to the scrutiny and cross-questioning of a rather pretty woman of twenty-eight or thirty.
"Ever worked in a factory before?" she began, with lofty indifference, as if it didn't matter whether I had or had not.
"Where did you work?"
"I never worked any place before."
"Oh-h!" There was a world of meaning, as I afterward discovered, in Miss Kinzer's long-drawn-out "Oh-h!" In this instance she looked up quickly, with an obvious display of interest, as if she had just unearthed a remarkable specimen in one who had never worked at anything before.
"You're not used to work, then?" she remarked insinuatingly, straightening up from the rude desk where she sat like the judge of a police-court. She was now all attention.
"Well, not exactly that," I replied, nettled by her manner and, above all, by her way of putting things. "I have worked before, but never at factory-work."
"Then why didn't you say so?"
She now opened her book and inscribed my name therein.
"Where do you live?"
"Over in East Fourteenth Street," I replied mechanically, forgetting for the moment the catastrophe that had rendered me more homeless than ever.
"No, I room." Then, reading only too quickly an unpleasant interpretation in the uplifted eyebrows, a disagreeable curiosity mirrored in the brown eyes beneath, I added hastily, "I have no home. My folks are all dead."
What impression this bit of information made I was unable to determine as I followed her slender, slightly bowed figure across the busy, roaring workroom.
"Be careful you don't get hurt," she cried, as we threaded a narrow passage in and out among the stamping, throbbing machinery, where, by the light that filtered through the grimy windows, I got vague, confused glimpses of girl-faces shining like stars out of this dark, fearful chaos of revolving belts and wheels, and above the bedlam noises came girlish laughter and song.
"Good morning, Carrie!" one quick-witted toiler sang out as she spied the new girl in tow of the forewoman, and suddenly the whole room had taken up the burden of the song.
"Don't mind them," my conductor remarked. "They don't mean nothing by it—watch out there for your head!"
Safe through the outlying ramparts of machinery, we entered the domain of the table-workers, and I was turned over to Phoebe, a tall girl in tortoise ear-rings and curl-papers. Phoebe was assigned to "learn" me in the trade of "finishing." Somewhat to my surprise, she assumed the task joyfully, and helped me off with my coat and hat. From the loud-mouthed tirades as to "Annie Kinzer's nerve," it became evident that the assignment of the job of "learner" is one to cause heartburning jealousies, and that Phoebe, either because of some special adaptability or through favoritism, got the lion's share of novices.
"That's right, Phoebe; hog every new girl that comes along!" amiably bawled a bright-faced, tidy young woman who answered to the name of Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith worked briskly as she talked, and the burden of her conversation appeared to be the heaping of this sort of good-natured invective upon the head of her chum—or, as she termed it, her "lady-friend," Phoebe. The amiability with which Mrs. Smith dealt out her epithets was only equaled by the perfect good nature of her victim, who replied to each and all of them with a musically intoned, "Hot air!"
"Hot A—i—r!" The clear tones of Phoebe's soprano set the echoes ringing all over the great workroom. In and out among the aisles and labyrinthine passages that wind through towering piles of boxes, from the thundering machinery far over on the other side of the "loft" to the dusky recess of the uttermost table, the musical cry reverberated.
"Hot a—i—r!" Every few minutes, all through the long, weary day, Phoebe found occasion for sounding that magic call.
"The rest of the ladies get up their backs something awful," Phoebe explained as she dragged a big green pasteboard box from beneath the work-table. "They say she gives me more 'n my share of learners because I'm easy to get on with, I guess, and don't play no tricks on them.... You have a right to put your things in here along with my lunch. Them girls is like to do 'most anything to a new girl's duds if you wuz to hang them in the coat-room. Them Ginneys 'll do 'most anything. Wuz you down-stairs when Celie Polatta got into the fight with Rosie?"
"I just missed it," she sighed in reply to my affirmative. "I was born unlucky."
"Hello, Phoebe! So you've hogged another!" a new voice called across the table, and I put a question.
"Why do they all want to teach the new girl? I should think they'd be glad to be rid of the trouble."
"You mean learn her? Why, because the girl that learns the green hand gets all her work checked on to her own card while she's learning how. Never worked in a box-factory before?" I shook my head.
"I guessed as much. Well, box-making's a good trade. Have you an apron?"
As I had not, I was then ordered to "turn my skirt," in order that I might receive the inevitable coat of glue and paste on its inner rather than on its outer surface. I gently demurred against this very slovenly expedient.
"All right; call it hot air if you want to. I s'pose you know it all," tossing her curl-papers with scorn. "You know better 'n me, of course. Most learners do think they knows it all. Now looky here, I've been here six years, and I've learned lots of green girls, and I never had one as didn't think she hadn't ought to turn her skirt. The ladies I'm used to working with likes to walk home looking decent and respectable, no difference what they're like other times."
With the respectability of my ladyhood thus impeached, and lest I infringe upon the cast-iron code of box-factory etiquette, there was nothing to do but yield. I unhooked my skirt, dropped it to the floor, and stepped out of it in a trice, anxious to do anything to win back the good will of Phoebe. Instantly she brightened, and good humor once more flashed over her grimy features.
"H-m! that's the stuff! There's one thing you hadn't ought to forget, and mind, I'm speaking as one lady-friend to another when I tell you these things—and that is, that you have a right to do as the other girls in the factory or you'll never get 'long with them. If you don't they'll get down on you, sure's pussy's a cat; and then they'll make it hot for you with complaining to the forelady. And then she'll get down on you after while too, and won't give you no good orders to work on; and—well, it's just this way: a girl mustn't be odd."
Continuing her philosophy of success, Phoebe proceeded to initiate me into the first process of my job, which consisted in pasting slippery, sticky strips of muslin over the corners of the rough brown boxes that were piled high about us in frail, tottering towers reaching to the ceiling, which was trellised over with a network of electric wires and steam-pipes. Two hundred and fifty of these boxes remained to be finished on the particular order upon which Phoebe was working. Each must be given eight muslin strips, four on the box and four on its cover; two tapes, inserted with a hair-pin through awl-holes; two tissue "flies," to tuck over the bonnet soon to nestle underneath; four pieces of gay paper lace to please madame's eye when the lid is lifted; and three labels, one on the bottom, one on the top, and one bearing the name of a Fifth Avenue modiste on an escutcheon of gold and purple.
The job, as it progressed, entailed ceaseless shoving and shifting and lifting. In order that we might not be walled in completely by our cumbersome materials, every few minutes we bore tottering piles across the floor to the "strippers."
These latter, who were small girls, covered the sides with glazed paper on machines; and as fast as each box was thus covered it was tossed to the "turner-in," a still smaller girl, who turned in the overlapping edge of the strip, after which the box was ready to come back to the table for the next process at our hands.
By ten o'clock, with Mrs. Smith's gay violet-boxes and our own bonnet-boxes, we had built a snug bower all round our particular table. Through its pasteboard walls the din and the songs came but faintly. My mates' tongues flew as fast as their fingers. The talk was chiefly devoted to clothes, Phoebe's social activities, and the evident prosperity of Mrs. Smith's husband's folks, among whom it appeared she had only recently appeared as "Jeff's" bride. Having exhausted the Smiths, she again gave Phoebe the floor by asking:
"Are you going to-night?"
"Well, I should say! Don't I look it?"
To determine by Phoebe's appearance where she might be going were an impossibility to the uninitiated, for her dress was an odd combination of the extremes of wretchedness and luxury. A woefully torn and much-soiled shirt-waist; a gorgeous gold watch worn on her breast like a medal; a black taffeta skirt, which, under the glue-smeared apron, emitted an unmistakable frou-frou; three Nethersole bracelets on her wrist; and her feet incased in colossal shoes, broken and stringless. The latter she explained to Mrs. Smith.
"I just swiped a pair of paw's and brought them along this morning, or I'd be dished for getting into them high heels to-night. My corns and bunions 'most killed me yesterday—they always do break out bad about Easter. My pleasure club," she explained, turning to me—"my pleasure club, 'The Moonlight Maids,' give a ball to-night." Which fact likewise explained the curl-papers as well as the slattern shirt-waist, donned to save the evening bodice worn to the factory that morning and now tucked away in a big box under the table.
A whole side of our pretty violet-sprinkled bower caved in as a little "turner-in" lurched against it in passing with a top-heavy column of boxes. Through the opening daylight is visible once more, and from the region of the machines is heard a chorus of voices singing "The Fatal Wedding."
"Hot a—i—r!" Phoebe intones derisively. "It's a wonder Angelina wouldn't get a new song. Them strippers sing that 'Fatal Wedding' week in and week out."
We worked steadily, and as the hours dragged on I began to grow dead tired. The awful noise and confusion, the terrific heat, the foul smell of the glue, and the agony of breaking ankles and blistered hands seemed almost unendurable.
At last the hour-hand stood at twelve, and suddenly, out of the turmoil, a strange quiet fell over the great mill. The vibrations that had shaken the whole structure to its very foundations now gradually subsided; the wheels stayed their endless revolutions; the flying belts now hung from the ceiling like long black ribbons. Out of the stillness girl-voices and girl-laughter echoed weirdly, like a horn blown in a dream, while sweeter and clearer than ever rang Phoebe's soprano "Hot air!"
The girls lunched in groups of ten and twelve. Each clique had its leader. By an unwritten law I was included among those who rallied around Phoebe, most of whom she had "learned" at some time or other, as she was now "learning" me. The luncheons were divested of their newspaper wrappings and spread over the ends of tables, on discarded box-lids held across the knees—in fact, any place convenience or sociability dictated. Then followed a friendly exchange of pickles and cake. A dark, swarthy girl, whom they called "Goldy" Courtleigh, was generous in the distribution of the lukewarm contents of a broken-nosed tea-pot, which was constantly replenished by application to the hot-water faucet.
Although we had a half-hour, luncheon was swallowed quickly by most of the girls, eager to steal away to a sequestered bower among the boxes, there to lose themselves in paper-backed romance. A few of less literary taste were content to nibble ice-cream sandwiches and gossip. Dress, the inevitable masquerade ball, murders and fires, were favorite topics of discussion,—the last always with lowered voices and deep-drawn breathing. For fire is the box-maker's terror, the grim specter that always haunts her, and with good reason does she always start at the word.
"I'm always afraid," declared Phoebe, "and I always run to the window and get ready to jump the minute I hear the alarm."
"I don't," mused Angelina; "I haven't sense enough to jump: I faint dead away. There'd be no chance for me if a fire ever broke out here."
Once or twice there was mention of beaux and "steady fellows," but the flesh-and-blood man of every-day life did not receive as much attention in this lunch chat as did the heroes of the story-books.
While it was evident, of course, from scattered comments that box-makers are constantly marrying, it was likewise apparent that they have not sufficient imagination to invest their hard-working, sweat-grimed sweethearts with any halo of romance.
Promptly at half-past twelve the awakening machinery called us back to the workaday world. Story-books were tucked away, and their entranced readers dragged themselves back to the machines and steaming paste-pots, to dream and to talk as they worked, hot of their own fellows of last night's masquerade, but of bankers and mill-owners who in fiction have wooed and won and honorably wedded just such poor toilers as they themselves.
IN WHICH PHOEBE AND MRS. SMITH HOLD FORTH UPON MUSIC AND LITERATURE
"Don't you never read no story-books?" Mrs. Smith asked, stirring the paste-pot preparatory to the afternoon's work. She looked at me curiously out of her shrewd, snapping dark eyes as she awaited my answer. I was conscious that Mrs. Smith didn't like me for some reason or other, and I was anxious to propitiate her. I was pretty certain she thought me a boresome prig, and I determined I'd prove I wasn't. My confession of an omnivorous appetite for all sorts of story-books had the desired effect; and when I confessed further, that I liked best of all a real, tender, sentimental love-story, she asked amiably:
"How do you like 'Little Rosebud's Lovers'?"
"I've never read that," I replied. "Is it good?"
"It's fine," interposed Phoebe; "but I like 'Woven on Fate's Loom' better—don't you?" The last addressed to Mrs. Smith.
"No, I can't say as that's my impinion," returned our vis-a-vis, with a judicious tipping of the head to one side as she soused her dripping paste-brush over the strips. "Not but what 'Woven on Fate's Loom' is a good story in its way, either, for them that likes that sort of story. But I think 'Little Rosebud's Lovers' is more int'resting, besides being better wrote."
"And that's just what I don't like about it," retorted Phoebe, her fingers traveling like lightning up and down the corners of the boxes. "You like this hot-air talk, and I don't; and the way them fellows and girls shoot hot-air at each other in that there 'Little Rosebud's Lovers' is enough to beat the street-cars!"
"What is it about?" I asked with respectful interest, addressing the question to Mrs. Smith, who gave promise of being a more serious reviewer than the flippant Phoebe. Mrs. Smith took a bite of gingerbread and began:
"It's about a fair, beautiful young girl by the name of Rosebud Arden. Her pa was a judge, and they lived in a grand mansion in South Car'lina. Little Rosebud—that's what everybody called her—had a stepsister Maud. They was both beauties, only Maud didn't have a lovely disposition like Little Rosebud. A Harvard gradjate by the name of Percy Fielding got stuck on Little Rosebud for the wealth she was to get from her pa, and she was terrible stuck on him. She was stuck on him for fair, though not knowing he was a villain of the deepest dye. That's what the book called him. He talked her into marrying him clandestinely. Maud and her mother put up a job to get rid of Little Rosebud, so Maud could get all the money. So they told lies to her pa, who loved her something awful; and one night, when she came in after walking in the grand garden with her husband, who nobody knew she was married to, she found herself locked out. Then she went to the hotel where he was staying, and told him what had happened; but he turned her down flat when he heard it, for he didn't want nothing to do with her when she wasn't to get her pa's money; and then—"