Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XX. Several Quiet Forces at Work.
Precipitous ascents and descents do not constitute the greater part of life's journey. In the experience of very many they occur more or less frequently, but they conduct to long intervals where the way is comparatively level, although it may be flinty, rough, and hedged with thorns. More often the upward trend or the decline of our paths is so slight as not to be noticed as we pass on, but at the end of years we can know well whether we are gaining or losing.
The Jocelyns, in common with thousands of others, had made a swift descent from a position of comparative affluence to one of real, though not repulsive, poverty. There was nothing, however, in their fall that cast a shadow upon them in the eyes of the world except as the unfortunate are always "under a cloud" to the common herd that moves together in droves only where the sunlight of prosperity fails. If Mr. Jocelyn could regain his former position, or a better one, there had been nothing in his brief obscurity that would prevent his wife and daughters from stepping back into their old social place, with all its privileges and opportunities.
The reader knows, however, that his prospects were becoming more and more dubious--that each day added a rivet to the chain that an evil habit was forging. His family did not even suspect this, although the impression was growing upon them that his health was becoming impaired. They were beginning to accommodate themselves to life at its present level, and the sense of its strangeness was passing slowly away. This was especially true of Belle and the children, upon whom the past had but a comparatively slight hold. Mildred, from her nature and tastes, felt the change more keenly than any of the others, and she could never forget that it raised a most formidable barrier against her dearest hopes. Mrs. Jocelyn also suffered greatly from the privations of her present lot, and her delicate organization was scarcely equal to the tasks and burdens it imposed. As far as possible she sought to perform the domestic duties that were more suited to the stout, red arms of those accustomed to such labors. It seemed essential that Mildred and Belle should give their strength to supplementing their father's small income, for a time at least, though all were living in hope that this necessity would soon pass away. The family was American, and Southern at that, in the idea that bread-winning was not woman's natural province, but only one of the direful penalties of extreme poverty. The working-woman of the South belonged to a totally different class from that in which Mr. and Mrs. Jocelyn had their origin, and prejudices die hard, even among people who are intelligent, and, in most respects, admirable. To Mrs. Jocelyn and her daughters work was infinitely preferable to dependence, but it was nevertheless menial and undignified because of its almost involuntary and hereditary association with a race of bond-servants. He is superficial indeed in his estimate of character who thinks that people can change their views and feelings in response to a brief demonstration of the essential dignity of labor, especially after generations of accumulating pride of caste have been giving the mind a different bent. Moreover, this family of Southern origin had not seen in the city of New York very much confirmation of the boasted Northern ideas of labor. Social status depended too much on the number of servants that people kept and the style in which they lived. Poverty had brought them a more sudden and complete loss of recognition than would have been possible in the South--a loss which they would not have felt so greatly had they wealthy connections in town through whom they might have retained, in part at least, their old relations with people of their own station.
As it was, they found themselves almost wholly isolated. Mrs. Jocelyn did not regret this so much for herself, since her family was about all the society she craved; moreover in her girlhood she had been accustomed to rather remote plantation life, with its long intervals of absence of society. Mr. Jocelyn's business took him out among men even more than he relished, for his secret indulgence predisposed to solitude and quiet. He was living most of the time in an unreal world, and inevitable contact with his actual life and surroundings brought him increasing distress.
With Belle and Mildred it was different. At their age society and recreation were as essential as air and light. Many are exceedingly uncharitable toward working-girls because they are often found in places of resort that are, without doubt, objectionable and dangerous. The fact is ignored that these places are sought from a natural and entirely wholesome desire for change and enjoyment, which are as needful to physical and moral health as sunlight to a plant. They forget that these normal cravings of the young in their own families find many and safe means of gratification which are practically denied to the tenement population. If, instead of harsh judgments, they would provide for the poor places of cheap and innocent resort; if, instead of sighing over innate depravity, they would expend thought and effort in bringing sunshine into the experiences of those whose lives are deeply shadowed by the inevitable circumstances of their lot, they would do far more to exemplify the spirit of Him who has done so much to fill the world with light, flowers, and music.
Mildred began to brood and grow morbid in her monotonous work and seclusion; and irrepressible Belle, to whom shop life was becoming an old, weary story, was looking around for "pastures new." Her nature was much too forceful for anything like stagnation. The world is full of such natures, and we cannot build a dike of "thou shalt nots" around them; for sooner or later they will overleap the barriers, and as likely on the wrong side as on the right. Those who would save and bless the world can accomplish far more by making safe channels than by building embankments, since almost as many are ruined by undue and unwise repression as by equally unwise and idiotic indulgence.
If Mr. Jocelyn had been himself he might have provided much innocent and healthful recreation for his family; but usually he was so dreamy and stupid in the evening that he was left to doze quietly in his chair. His family ascribed his condition to weariness and reaction from his long strain of anxiety; and opium had already so far produced its legitimate results that he connived at their delusion if he did not confirm it by actual assertion. It is one of the diabolical qualities of this habit that it soon weakens and at last destroys all truth and honor in the soul, eating them out with a corrosive power difficult to explain.
For the first week or two Belle was glad to rest in the evenings from the intolerable weariness caused by standing all day, but the adaptability of the human frame is wonderful, and many at last become accustomed, and, in some sense, inured to that which was torture at first. Belle was naturally strong and vigorous, and her compact, healthful organism endured the cruel demand made upon it far better than the majority of her companions. Nature had endowed her with a very large appetite for fun. For a time her employment, with its novelty, new associations, and small excitements, furnished this, but now her duties were fading into prosaic work, and the child was looking around for something enlivening. Where in the great city could she find it? Before their poverty came there were a score of pretty homes like her own in which she could visit schoolmates; her church and Sabbath-school ties brought her into relation with many of her own age; and either in her own home or in those of her friends she took part in breezy little festivities that gave full and healthful scope to her buoyant nature. She was not over-fastidious now, but when occasionally she went home with some of her companions at the shop, she returned dissatisfied. The small quarters in which the girls lived rendered little confidential chats--so dear to girls--impossible, and she was brought at once into close contact with strange and often repulsive people. It seemed that the street furnished the only privacy possible, except as she brought girls to her own abode. Her mother and sister were very considerate in this respect, and welcomed all of her acquaintances who appeared like good, well-meaning girls; and Mildred would either give up her share of their little room for the time, or else take part in their talk in such a genial way as to make the visitors at home as far as they could be with one in whom they recognized their superior. Their light talk and shop gossip were often exceedingly tiresome to Mildred, but she felt that Belle needed every safeguard within their power to furnish. And this privilege of welcoming the best companions her circumstances permitted was of great help to Belle, and, for a time, prevented her restless spirit from longing for something more decided in the way of amusement. Of necessity, however, anything so quiet could not last; but where could the girl find pleasures more highly colored? Occasionally she would coax or scold her father into taking her out somewhere, but this occurred less and less frequently, for she was made to feel that his health required absolute rest when his business permitted it. If she had had kind brothers the case would have been greatly simplified, but thousands of working-girls have no brothers, no male companions save those acquaintances that it is their good or, more often, their evil fortune to make. Without a brother, a relative, or a friend deserving the name, how is a young girl, restricted to a boarding-house or a tenement, to find safe recreation? Where can she go for it on the great majority of the evenings of the year? Books and papers offer a resource to many, and Mildred availed herself of them to her injury. After sitting still much of the day she needed greater activity in the evening. Belle was not fond of reading, as multitudes on the fashionable avenues are not. The well-to-do have many other resources--what chances had she? To assert that working-girls ought to crave profitable reading and just the proper amount of hygienic exercise daring their leisure, and nothing more, is to be like the engineer who said that a river ought to have been half as wide as it was, and then he could build a bridge across it. The problem must be solved as it exists.
To a certain extent this need of change and cheerful recreation is supplied in connection with some of the mission chapels, and the effort is good and most commendable as far as it goes; but as yet the family had formed no church relations. Mildred, Belle, and occasionally Mrs. Jocelyn had attended Sabbath service in the neighborhood. They shrank, however, so morbidly from recognition that they had no acquaintances and had formed no ties. They had a prejudice against mission chapels, and were not yet willing to identify themselves openly with their poor neighbors. As yet they had incurred no hostility on this account, for their kindly ways and friendliness to poor Clara had won the goodwill and sympathy of all in the old mansion. But the differences between the Jocelyns and their neighbors were too great for any real assimilation, and thus, as we have said, they were thrown mainly on their own resources. Mrs. Wheaton was their nearest approach to a friend, and very helpful she was to them in many ways, especially in relieving Mrs. Jocelyn, for a very small compensation, from her heavier tasks. The good woman, however, felt even more truly than they that they had too little in common for intimacy.
There is one amusement always open to working-girls if they are at all attractive--the street flirtation. To their honor it can be said that comparatively few of the entire number indulge in this dangerous pastime from an improper motive, the majority meaning no more harm or evil than their more fortunate sisters who can enjoy the society of young men in well-appointed parlors. In most instances this street acquaintance, although unhedged by safe restrictions, is by no means indiscriminate. The young men are brothers or friends of companions, or they are employed in the same establishment, or else reside in the neighborhood, so that usually something is known of their characters and antecedents, and the desire to become friendly is similar to that influencing the young people of country neighborhoods. As a rule these young people have few opportunities of meeting save in the streets and places of public resort. The conditions of life in a great city, however, differ too widely from those of a village or country town, where every one is well known and public opinion is quick and powerful in its restraints. Social circles are too loosely organized in a city; their members from necessity are generally to little known to each other; there are too many of both sexes ready to take advantage of the innocent and unwary, and their opportunities of escape from all penalty invite the crimes suggested by their evil natures. Belle had been often warned, and she had so much affection for her mother and so much pride that she did not fall readily into indiscretions; nor would she in the future respond, without considerable self-restraint, to the frequent advances which she never failed to recognize, however distant she might appear, and she would not have possessed a woman's nature had she been indifferent to admiring glances and the overtures of those who would gladly form her acquaintance. Still it must be admitted that her good resolutions were fast weakening in this direction.
Mildred's dangers were quite different from those which assailed Belle, and yet they were very grave ones. Her mind and heart were preoccupied. She was protected from even the desire of perilous associations and pleasures by the delicacy and refinement of her nature and her Christian principle. She shrank from social contact with the ruder world by which she was now surrounded; she felt and lived like one in exile, and her hope was to return to her native land. In the meantime she was growing pale, languid, morbid, and, occasionally, even irritable, from the lack of proper exercise and change. She was not discouraged as yet, but the day of deliverance seemed to grow more distant. Her father apparently was declining in energy and health, and his income was very small. She worked long hours over her fancy work, but the prices paid for it at the shops were so small that she felt with a growing despondency it was but a precarious means of support. Their first month in the old mansion was drawing to a close, and they had been compelled to draw slightly on the small sum of ready money still remaining after paying for their summer's board. They still had a few articles in storage, having retained them in hope of moving, at no distant time, into more commodious quarters.
In their desire for economy they also fell into the very common error of buying salt fish and meat, and other articles of food that were cheap and easily prepared rather than nutritious, and Belle was inclined to make her lunch on pastry and cake instead of food. In teaching them a better way Mrs. Wheaton proved herself a very useful friend. "Vat yer vant is sumthink that makes blood an' stands by von," she had said; "an' this 'ere salt, dry stuff an' light baker's bread and tea and coffee don't do this hat hall. They's good henough as relishes an' trimmins an' roundins hoff, but they hain't got the nourishin' in 'em that vorking people vants. Buy hoat meal an' corn meal--make good bread of yer hown. Buy good but cheap chunks of beef an' mutton an' wegetables, an' make stews an' meat pies an' rich soups, an' say yer prayers hagainst hall trashy things as hain't vorth the trouble of heatin'. Heggs, too, ven ther're plenty, hare fust-rate, an' milk is better than so much tea an' coffee, heven if the milkman do spill it in the brook an' pick it hout hagain before we get it. Vorkin' hon tea an' coffee is like keepin' the 'orse hagoin' on a vip hinstead of hoats."
Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred were sensible enough to take her advice, and although Belle complained at first over the more simple and wholesome diet, she soon felt so much the better for it that she made no further trouble.
As had been the case at the farmhouse, Mildred at last awakened to the evils of a depressed and sedentary life, and felt that she must look around for objects of interest. She began to spend more time with Mrs. Wheaton, and found considerable amusement in her homely common-sense. The good woman was all the more companionable for the reason that she never presumed on a coarse familiarity or indulged in a prying interest. Mildred also aided the Wheaton children in their lessons, and gave more time to her own little brother and sister, taking them out to walk in the cool of the day, and giving much thought, while she plied her needle, to various little expedients that would keep them content to remain away from the street and the rude children that often made the old house resound with boisterous sport. Mrs. Wheaton's children were in the main well behaved, and there was much visiting back and forth among the little people of the two families, but here the line was drawn, and generally with very good reason. After all, perhaps, the chief horror of tenement life to a family like the Jocelyns consisted in the fact that just outside their door were hordes of prowling little savages ignorant in the main of civilization, but prematurely enlightened as to its vices. To prevent the inevitable contamination which would result from indiscriminate association, and to interest Fred and Minnie in their daily lessons, was the constant effort of both Mildred and Mrs. Jocelyn. And yet, as at the farmhouse, Mildred's conscience began to reproach her for keeping too much aloof from the people who dwelt with her in the old mansion. It was not necessary to make companions of them in order to do them some good, and in aiding them to bear their burdens she might in part forget her own. Mrs. Wheaton's hearty kindness permeated the house like an atmosphere, and from her Mildred learned the character and circumstances of each family quite correctly. "I can get hon with 'em hall hexcept a hold daft German on the top floor, oos a bit crazy hover the 'evens, but don't stand much chance of hever gettin' hup hinto 'em. You've hoften seen 'im a-lookin' at the stars an' things on the roof. 'E 'alf starves 'is family to buy books an' maps an' a telescope. 'E 'ates me cos I tried to talk religion to 'im vonce ven 'e vas sick, an' cos I told 'im 'e 'ad no bizness to take his death a'cold on the roof o' vinter nights; an 'ven 'e vonce gets a grudge hagainst yer 'e never lets hup."
Mildred had already become more interested in this old man than in any other of her neighbors except Mrs. Wheaton, but had found him utterly unapproachable. Not infrequently she spent part of the hot evenings on the platform built over the old hip-roof, and had invariably seen him there on cloudless nights studying the skies with a telescope that appeared to be by no means a toy instrument; but he always took possession of the far end of the platform, and was so savage when any one approached thyt even Belle was afraid of him. His wife, for a wonder, was a slattern German, and she spoke English very imperfectly. With her several small children she lived in a chaotic way, keeping up a perpetual whining and fault-fnding, half under her breath from fear of her irascible husband, that was like a "continual dropping on a very rainy day." Every now and then, Mrs. Wheaton said, he would suddenly emerge from his abstraction and break out against her in a volley of harsh, guttural German oaths that were "henough to make von's 'air riz." Therefore it very naturally happened that Mildred had become acquainted with all the other families before she had even spoken to Mr. or Mrs. Ulph. On the other inmates of the mansion her influence soon began to be felt; for almost unconsciously she exercised her rare and subtle power of introducing a finer element into the lives of those who were growing sordid and material. She had presented several families with a small house-plant, and suggested that they try to develop slips from others that she sedulously tended in her own window. In two or three instances she aided untidy and discouraged women to make their rooms more attractive. The fact, also, that the Jocelyns had made their two apartments, that were little if any better than the others, so very inviting had much weight, and there sprang up quite an emulation among some of the simple folk in making the most of their limited resources.
"Instead of scolding your husbands for going out and perhaps taking a glass too much, try and keep them home by making the living-room homelike," she had said on several occasions to complaining wives who had paved the way by their confidential murmurings. "Have some extra dish that they like for supper--they will spend more if they go out--then be a little smiling and chatty, and tell them to light their pipes and stay with you, for you are a bit lonesome. If they will have their mug of beer, coax them to take it here at home. Try to put a few shillings in the savings bank every week, and talk over little plans of saving more. If you can only make your husbands feel that they are getting ahead a little, it will have a great influence in steadying them and keeping them out of bad company."
Mildred had a genius for everything relating to domestic life, and an almost unbounded belief in good home influences. Although she rarely talked religion directly to the people whom she was trying to benefit--she was much too diffident and self-depreciative for this--her regular attendance at some place of worship on the Sabbath and her course toward poor Mrs. Bute and her daughter had given the impression that she was a very religious girl, and that her motives were Christian in character. People's instincts are quick in discerning the hidden springs of action; and her influence was all the more effective because she gave them the fruits of faith rather than stems of exhortation or which they were required to develop fruit of their own. Much good fruit was eventually produced, but more through her example, her spring-like influence, than from any formal instruction.