Live and Let Live/Chapter II
THE LEAST OF TWO EVILS.
It was a few days previous to the timely benefaction of the baker's son that Lee broke his leg. After he was disabled, his family subsisted on the avails of work which his wife obtained from a slop-shop. Her time was nearly consumed in attendance on her exacting husband. She had no friends in the city—not an acquaintance even, excepting her husband's employer, and he was not of a character to overcome her natural reluctance to make known the extreme degradation of her condition. Want—starvation—stared her in the face; still she would not incur a debt, even for a loaf of bread, that she saw no possibility of paying. "Lucy," she had said to her child, "we can beg if we must, but we will not take bread that we cannot pay for." The poorest, even, have some means of education when they can give such a practical lesson in integrity.
It had now become necessary to take some measures to obtain subsistence. Mrs. Lee was not the woman to sit with her hands folded, and repeat "that bitter and perplexed 'what shall I do!' " She applied at a Venetian blind-factory, and obtained for her two youngest girls, the one eleven, the other nine, the sewing of the worsted stays to the blinds, by which they earned $1 50 per week; and this in the intervals of their daily school. She had a plan for Lucy, but this she would not put into execution without her father's concurrence, which she foresaw it would be no easy matter to obtain. Lucy had always been his darling. She was his first-born. She was pretty; and having in his more fortunate days given her some advantages of education, he looked forward to a time when she might, by that prize which is always in a pretty woman's lottery, a fortunate marriage, regain the place in society forfeited by his misconduct.
The children were asleep. Lee, wretched and restless, was tossing on his bed, calling at every moment his patient wife from the garment which she was making by a dim light to earn one shilling. The air of the room was scarcely tempered by the single stick of wood in the stove, and all this misery was the consequence of a base indulgence in a low appetite. But the poor man paid the severest penalty in his own person. Who that looked upon his grisled hair, his bloated face, his bloodshot eyes, and his stiffened and trembling limbs, could have recognised him who, fifteen years before, was one of the most promising young lawyers of Massachusetts?
After expressing a wish for this and that, and complaining of the cold, "What in Heaven's name are we to do?" he said. "Has Barton never sent to inquire after me?"
"No—he probably does not know where we live."
"It would be easy finding out—but people don't take pains to look up poor acquaintances. Barton is no worse than the rest of the world. Lord help us! we may as well come to it first as last. We shall starve or freeze to death here. Won't you stop that sewing? Every stitch of your needle goes through my nerves. You can't earn enough to save us from starvation. Send me to the alms-house—it makes little difference where one dies; and when I am gone you can manage to scramble on with the rest".
"No, Richard—no—we have gone through many a dark day together, and we will not separate till it pleases God to part us". Lee drew the sheet over his face. "We have a hard winter before us, and we must take measures accordingly. The first step should be to reduce the family. I am thinking of getting a place for Lucy."
"A place! what sort of a place?"
"Good Heavens! you are not in earnest?"
"I am; and, if you will hear me patiently, you may think me right."
"Never, never—all the talking in the world won't persuade me to degrade Lucy to a servant."
Mrs. Lee thought of the degradation to which her husband's vice had reduced them, and she resolutely proceeded.
"We must have relief, and that immediately. I will not subject my children to being depraved by dependance on charity while they have the means of exertion—honest labour is never degrading."
"Certainly not to those who are used to it."
"Nor to those that need it, dear husband, as we do. It does not startle or frighten me in the least. I have been through all gradations from perfect competency to our present suffering state, and each degree—even ours—has its peculiar advantages and temptations, and its happiness too."
"Happiness!" echoed Lee.
His wife proceeded: "I can't but hope Lucy will find hers in a faithful performance of her duties. I can truly say I have often envied servants when I have heard the merry peals of laughter in the kitchen, and known what anxious hearts there were in the parlour."
"But what is all this to the purpose! Lucy shall never live in anybody's kitchen."
"It is much to the purpose", replied Mrs. Lee, judiciously answering to the first clause of his sentence, "to settle it in our minds that Lucy may be good and happy in any position".
"But, wife, consider—recollect how you and I were brought up."
"That is what I try to forget!"
"But you ought not voluntarily to put Lucy out to service!"
"Richard, you know I do not mean to reproach you; but I must say, that in our situation we have lost the power of voluntary action—we are under the stern coercion of necessity." Mrs. Lee now laid aside her work, and spoke, though with a tremulous voice, in a tone of decision she seldom assumed. "For the last week Lucy and I have lived on rye-mush. The bread you and the other children have eaten was given to us by the baker. I will not continue to subsist on his bounty while we have unemployed means of feeding ourselves. Lucy is nearly fourteen, old enough to get a place and earn wages. There will be one less to eat, and some help through this hard winter from her earnings".
"But how can you bear to think of making a mere servant-girl of Lucy?"
"The condition of servant-girls is no longer what it once was. They are not servants in the old sense of the word. Their relation to their employers is one of mutual advantage and mutual dependance. In a well-ordered family, a girl is fitting herself for the duties that belong to her sex. She is learning to fill honourably the station of a wife, mistress, and mother of a family."
"Oh, I grant you, in a well-ordered family! but where will you find such? and pray, how are you to know anything of the family you put her in—you have not an acquaintance in the city."
"No, not one—and this it is that perplexes and distresses me. It seems to me we never know the wants of a condition till we are placed in it ourselves. I remember joining in a laugh at the presumption of a servant, who, when asked for her references, asked them in return of the employer. Yet surely the knowledge should be mutual in such a contract."
"You are always refining, wife—what should be and what is in this world are wide apart, and you must submit to what is. I see," he added, after a pause and a groan, "what we are coming to—I never realized it before!"
Shame—shame to thee, Lee! This from a man conscious of having lived for fifteen years in the violation of the laws of temperance, to which are affixed such rewards and such dreadful penalties; who had broken his marriage vows, involving in mortification, hardship, and bitter sorrow her whom he had sworn to cherish and protect; who had not only neglected the duties of a Christian father, but foregone the instincts of a brute parent, and, depriving his children of their birthright in a prosperous land, had reduced them to the privations and slavery of extreme poverty. Yet this weak man revolted from putting his child to domestic service as the severest trial of his condition!
This was doubtless an extreme case of Lee. But was not his feeling a part of a very general false estimate of life, its positions, its trials, and its duties?