Live and Let Live/Chapter III
Mrs. Lee having made up her mind that Lucy must go to service, tried to look upon the bright side of the necessity, and to present the brightest to her husband, but in her own secret heart she had bitter conflicts. She had, as we have said, no acquaintance in the city; she wanted not only a place for this pure, good little girl, who had never left the shelter of her mother's wing, but a good place, where the weaknesses of childhood would be considered; where its faults would be patiently borne with, forgiven, and corrected; where its ignorance would be instructed; where the employer would feel the responsibility, and the privilege, we may add, of training a young creature in virtue and religion, of converting a domestic to a friend. Do these palpable duties enter into the calculations of a majority of employers?
At the end of the week Mrs. Lee had saved two shillings; and having provided for her husband's comfort in her absence, placed her little lame boy within reach of his books and playthings, and given all necessary charges to the little girls, she set off with Lucy at twelve o'clock on her pilgrimage for a place. She entered a decent intelligence-office, paid the fee, and obtained a reference to Mrs. Oatley's, as a consequential man informed her, "one of the most fashionablest houses in Broadway."
"Can you tell me nothing else of the family?" inquired Mrs. Lee.
"Not I, woman—what else can you want to know?"
"If the place does not suit me, you will give me other references?"
"Certainly—we'll suit your slip of a girl to a place—there's no mistake about that."
Mrs. Lee sighed, left the office, and proceeded to the place. The house verified her informer's promise; everything in it and about it had a fashionable aspect. She was shown into Mrs. Oatley's bedroom, where that lady was sitting with a grown-up daughter. Both ladies, on learning their errand, surveyed the humble strangers from head to foot. Mrs. Lee the while, pale and exhausted with her long walk, was left standing as if in royal presence—and this in a land where we vaunt our equality and democratic institutions!
"Do you think she will answer our purpose, Anne?" asked the mother of the daughter.
"Nicely, mamma;" and then, in a lower but still audible tone, "she is a tidy lassie, and pretty too—just the thing to tend the door."
"She looks pale, I hope she is not sickly? I can't undertake a sickly child," said Mrs. Oatley, inquiringly.
"She is not in the least sickly, ma'am—she is paler than is natural to her just now."
"How does that happen?" It would have been a long and sad story to explain how that happened, and a hard one for Mrs. Lee to tell; she therefore evaded the question, "You will find her strong enough, ma'am, to perform any service you will require." Then followed the customary questions, to which Mrs. Lee replied, as she had predetermined, simply that she was a stranger in the city, and that she was compelled, by the wants consequent on her husband's protracted illness, to seek a place for her child.
"It's much the best thing for your child, good woman."
"That depends!" thought poor Mrs. Lee. She ventured to ask what service would be required of Lucy.
"Oh, the work I want her for is just nothing at all—merely to tend the door, bring up messages, and occasionally to run of errands—you could not find a better place for her—I'll give her four dollars a month."
"And if she is civil, &c., &c., &c.," said Miss Oatley, "she'll get plenty of presents."
"The wages are very liberal, ma'am," said Mrs. Lee, after a little hesitation, "but—"
"Oh, if you object, it is not worth talking about—it is a place very easy to supply."
"The only objection I have to make, ma'am, you will not perhaps think a very unreasonable one. My child must be qualifying herself for the future, and I fear the very light work she has here would rather unfit than fit her for the future."
"Oh, very well—as you please—a droll objection though—hey, Mary! There is no end to the whims and demands of servants nowadays—always something new! but it really is a little too much to expect to turn a gentleman's house into a school!"
Mrs. Lee felt her heart rising, but she struggled to keep it down, and asked, with the humility necessary to her forlorn condition, "if she might take till Monday to consider."
"No-on the whole, I don't think your girl would suit me-children that have never lived out are very apt to have their heads full of whims."
"Do let's go, mother," whispered Lucy. And they went without one kind word that would intimate they were beings of the same human family with the mistress of the mansion.
"What a goose the woman is!" said Mrs. Oatley, as the door closed upon the disappointed applicants. Yet Mrs. Oatley was not a hard-hearted woman; she only had never considered the feelings and rights of her inferiors in position. Strange reverses and revelations would there be to the more favoured classes if an intrinsic graduating scale could be applied.
Mrs. Lee retraced her way to the intelligence-office. The man was civil, and looked over his list. "Mrs. Timson, Greenwich-street, boarding house, wants a girl from twelve to fifteen—the very thing, ma'am."
"No, sir. I cannot put my child into a boarding-house."
"Pshaw! must not be more nice than wise. If she's clever and handy—looks so," winking at Lucy, "she'll pick up plenty of presents."
"Please to give me another reference."
"Here's one in Grand-street and two in Bleeker-street. If one shoe pinches, another may fit. There's Mrs. Tom Clark, a lawyer's lady—there's her number, Grand-street. There's Mrs. Aaron Sadwell, her husband made a fortune last summer; and there's Mrs. Kidder, a fashionable shoemaker's wife—so there's a choice for you." To Mrs. Tom Clark's they first went. Mrs. Clarke, after a long interrogation, dismissed them, saying, she made it a rule never to take girls that had not lived out—they required too much teaching!
Mrs. Sadwell inquired if the child knew how to work, and Mrs. Lee, warned by her last experience, replied that she had herself taken great pains to teach her.
"Ah, well, then," said Mrs. Sadwell, "she'll not do. I shall have to unlearn her the ways of such sort of people as you, my good woman, and those of a gentleman's family are so different!"
As they went down Mrs. Sadwell's steps, Mrs. Lee, struggling to hide her emotions from her child, said, in a cheerful voice, "Well, Lucy, dear, we'll go next to Mrs. Kidder's; those who know what work is ought to have most consideration for their servant." And to Mrs. Kidder's, a full mile from the office, they went. The door was opened by a rude, dirty boy (Mrs. Kidder's eldest hope), who, running to the landing-places on the stairs, shouted, "Ma—I say, can't you come down—here's somebody after a place."
"Tell 'em to come up here, Lorenzo."
"Follow your nose, ma'am," called out the boy, "and go to where you hear the tum-tumin."
Mrs. Lee obeyed the direction; and passing an open parlour door, she saw two communicating apartments gaudily furnished. Lucy followed her mother, and, as she reached the bottom of the stairs, Mr. Lorenzo came sliding down on the baluster, and, as he landed beside her, he threw his arm round her neck, kissed her cheek, and ran shouting out of the house. Lucy, confounded, called, "Mother, mother!" and would have implored her to turn back; but Mrs. Lee was already at the turn of the stairs, where she had been met by a slatternly Irish girl, who had spilled half a basin of dirty water at her feet. Not being in the least aware of the impertinence offered to her child, she had sprung forward to avoid the inundation, and was already in the presence of Mrs. Kidder, who sat before the open door of the room whence proceeded the tum-tumin—that is to say, the notes of a cracked piano, whereon one of the Misses Kidder was thrumming. "You come from the intelligence-office, I take it?"
Before Mrs. Lee could reply, one of the half dozen children in the room shouted out, "Ma, mayn't Matilda give me my horse?"
"No, I say I won't, ’cause he snatched my slate yesterday."
"Come to me, Orlando—you're as dirty as a pig—here, blow your nose," taking his apron for the office. "Matilda, stop your noise, and go and comb out your hair—it looks like a hurra's nest-you're wanting a place for your girl, I suppose?"
"Not here!" thought poor Mrs. Lee; but she merely replied, "I am looking for one."
"Can she do all kinds of work?" Before Mrs. Lee could reply there was another outbreak from Orlando, who was now indeed Furioso, "Ma, shan't Anna Maria be still? she is putting pepper-corns into my ear."
"Come to me, Anna Maria." Anna Maria received a cuff from her mother, and went bawling back to her place. The young practitioner at the piano meanwhile proceeded. "Is your girl handy at work in general?" resumed Mrs. Kidder.
"She understands work, and is as capable as most girls of her age. She has always lived at home, and has been my only assistant."
"Well, you both look neat and clean, and that is a very good symptom."
"A competent judge!" thought Mrs. Lee, as she looked at the carpet saturated with grease, the defaced furniture, and the filthy persons of the un-combed, unwashed mother and children.
"I want," continued Mrs. Kidder, "a girl that's handy in assisting about cooking—that can make up beds, and sweep out rooms, and set tables, and wait and tend when the girls have company, and understands washing dishes, and cleaning knives, and is handy at ironing, and helping the girls clear-starch; washing I calculate to hire; but I have concluded not to keep any steady help but a young girl—you can't depend on them Irish, and husband thinks, and so do I, the wages is too much."
Mrs. Lee saw Lucy's eye turning with most earnest appeal to her, and she was thinking how civilly to break off a treaty to which she was from the first determined not to accede, when they were again interrupted, this time by the entrance of the eldest Miss Kidder, followed by a milliner's girl with a bandbox, which was immediately opened, and two hats displayed for the mother's inspection. "Oh, ma, do say I may have this one," said the young lady; " it's only seven dollars and a half; Madame l'Epine asked ten at first, but she said it was so becoming to me it was a pity I should not have it! Oh, is not it a love? Madame says it's just like Mrs. ——," mentioning a name well known in the fashionable world and the milliner's world, and thence handed down to the humblest devotee to feathers and flowers in the city. Do say yes, ma."
The hat was tried on, and gave the daughter to the mother's eye so decidedly the air of bon ton, that the desired "Yes" was promptly spoken. This matter settled, Mrs. Kidder turned to Lucy. "Well, child, if you are a mind to come and do your best, I'll give you three dollars a month, and that is more than such a child as you can possibly earn."
"My child cannot undertake the work you expect from her for any wages," said Mrs. Lee.
"Oh, very well! very well! there are enough that will." Mrs. Lee was scarcely out of the room before the mother and young ladies vituperated the whole race of servants, who, they said, expected to do nothing and be paid for it; and Mrs. Kidder finished by saying she thought three dollars generous wages; at any rate, she could not afford to pay more. And she could not, and pay seven dollars and a half for a dress hat. Alas! the justice that is concerned in giving a fair and adequate reward to labour, is incompatible with the expensive gratification of vanity.
Mrs. Lee was not encouraged by the result of her inquiries thus far; but long trials had taught her patience; and when Lucy said, as they left the Kidders' door, "Oh, mother, let me go home and starve with you!" she replied in a cheerful tone, "One swallow does not make a summer, Lucy, nor one frost a winter."
"But, mother, you will be so tired! — and it's so dreadful to you to be talked to so by people that don't know you!"
"I am a little tired, Lucy, but that a night's rest will cure. And as to being talked to, as you call it, in this way, there are good uses in it. It gives me a realizing sense of some of the trials endured by those whose lot is a menial condition that I never had before. It is good for us, for a little while at least, to take the place of our fellow-creatures, and feel the weight of their burdens. And after all, my child, it is quite as well to be the humble, disdained, and questioned place-seeker, as those who so thoughtlessly pain us. Oh, what opportunities are lost for want of a little consideration! If these women had known what a comfort a kind word, fitly spoken, would have been to us, they would not have treated us in a way to shock you. We must try not to think too harshly, Lucy, of our fellow-creatures when they do wrong."
"Well, I shall try, mother—but I feel first, and afterward you make me think—what shall I do when I am away from you?"
Again our poor pilgrims retraced their way to the office, and received from the man, who seemed no way surprised at these repeated demands, three more references. One to Mrs. Louis, in Barclay-street, and that being nearest, thither Mrs. Lee went. Mrs. Louis's establishment indicated the wealth of the proprietor. A servant announced Mrs. Lee to her lady. "Do, Ellen," said Mrs. Louis, looking up from the "last new novel," and addressing her seamstress, "go down and speak to her—I can't be bothered."
Ellen returned with a most favourable report, to which her mistress, as she did not lift her eyes from her book, could have given but half an ear. When Ellen stopped talking, she said, "She'll do, no doubt, but I can't speak to her now—tell her to call again in an hour or two."
"She looks very tired, ma'am." Mrs. Louis neither heeded nor heard. "The child is a pretty child—and they have had a tedious long walk, Mrs. Louis—and if you would please to speak to them now?"
"Do, Ellen, hush!" said her mistress, looking up from the tale of fictitious distress that was drenching her face with tears. "If the woman is tired, tell her to call Monday."
"You engaged to go out early Monday morning, Mrs. Louis."
"How you interrupt me, Ellen! If I am out, can't she call again?"
"I would not advise you to come, if you have another place in view," added Ellen, kindly, after delivering Mrs. Louis's message; "Mrs. Louis has an engagement out, and you don't look able to take a long walk for nothing".
Mrs. Louis was not naturally more selfish than others. The sensibility that was poured out over a novel, or exhausted upon herself, if directed into proper channels, would have made her estimate rightly the value of time, the expense of labour, and the pain of hope deferred to a poor woman; would, in short, have given her that lively sense of the rights and wants of others that is manifest in justice and kindness.
The next lady to whom her references admitted her was a Mrs. Ardley, a good-humoured, self-indulgent,easy-tempered woman. She asked few questions, and was satisfied with the answers given. "All I want," she said, "is a, civil, obliging child, that is handy and willing—who will be ready to do a turn for the waiter, run out for the seamstress, help the cook, run up and down for the nurse—odds and ends, you know. If my people are satisfied, I shall be."
Mrs. Lee hesitated. These multiplied employers seemed to her like a many-headed monster; but the hope of anything better was fast fading away. While she hesitated, the cook sent up to know if Mrs. Ardley would lend her a certain dress-cap for a pattern.
"I have done with the cap," said Mrs. Ardley, rolling up her eyes, laughing, and tossing from out her wardrobe a soiled cap, decked with bows and flowers; "tell Ferris she's welcome to it." She was evidently pleased with her own generosity, as well as amused at her woman's enterprising vanity. "Well, we seem to be agreed," she said to Mrs. Lee; "let your child come on Monday."
"There is one favour I would ask before concluding, ma'am — can my child have a room or a bed to herself?"
"Oh, no — there is no one, I believe, more indulgent than I am to my people — but this is a stretch a little beyond me — pray, does miss have a room to herself at home?"
"No, ma'am, I have but one room for my husband, myself, and my four children."
"I beg your pardon, ma'am!" said Mrs. Ardley, almost involuntarily. There was a gentle dignity in Mrs. Lee's manner, that made her feel for a moment, in spite of their apparent relative stations, as if she were in the presence of a superior. "Sophy," she said, turning to her maid, "you know better than I — can you make up a separate bed for this little girl?"
"No, ma'am — not a comfortable one — there is not a mattress, nor even a blanket out of use."
"Why, Sophy, you make us out rather poverty-stricken."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Ardley! you know I did not mean that — there's piles of bedding in the trunk-room — it's only the servants' that is scanty!"
"Oh, ho! then we are not quite paupers yet?"
"You see how it is," resumed Mrs. Ardley to Mrs. Lee. "I should like to gratify you. I know a mother has peculiar feelings, let her situation in life be what it will; but your child will do very well with the cook — hey, Sophy?"
"I don't know, Mrs. Ardley — you remember Mary Orme?"
"Oh, it was that drunken wretch, Morris, that Mary Orme objected to sleeping with."
"Yes, Mrs. Ardley — but — "
"But what, Sophy? you are always making mountains of molehills."
Mrs. Lee waited anxiously for the explanation of Sophy's "but." Sophy, however, though sympathizing with Mrs. Lee's scruples, did not like to risk offending Mrs. Ardley by telling the truth, that Ferris, the present cook, was strongly suspected of her predecessor's infirmity.
"At any rate," said Mrs. Ardley, "let your little girl come and try. I take a fancy to her."
This first expression of good-will that she had heard that day brought Mrs. Lee almost to a conclusion; but still she shrunk from exposing Lucy to such contact with a stranger, of whose good character neither mistress nor maid ventured to give an assurance, and it was finally settled that if Mrs. Lee did not find a place to suit her better, Lucy should come on Monday morning. "And at any rate, if she does, let her call and let me know," said Mrs. Ardley.
"How silly it is in the woman to strain so at a gnat!" said Mrs. Ardley, after Mrs. Lee's departure; "when, by her own account, they live in such a mess at home."
"Yes, ma'am — but I suspect she has seen better days."
"She never hinted at any such thing."
"No, ma'am — but I somehow feel as if she had; and to them that has, Mrs. Ardley, it must be pretty hard to put up with what we have to gulp down, and say nothing about it."
"How ridiculous, Sophy! when everybody says servants have it all their own way nowadays."
"Do servants say so, Mrs. Ardley?"
"I am sure I don't know what they say."
Sophy was not addicted to the classics, or she might have aptly reminded Mrs. Ardley of the lion's comment on the sculptor's giving the victory to man over him.
"I do remember," resumed Mrs. Ardley,to the applicants, "thinking once while they were here that that poor body had something superior to her condition. If so, it must be shocking for her to go about so among strangers, looking up a place for that nice little girl - if she calls Monday morning, I wilt try and keep her, even if she has engaged a place." Mrs. Ardley felt a sympathy for a fallen possible lady, that she never would have dreamed of for a mere poor woman.
When Mrs. Lee and Lucy again went on their way the lamps were lighting. There was still one application to be made, and, both wearied in body and spirit, they proceeded to the upper end of Greenwich-street, to a Mrs. Broadson's.
Mrs. Broadson asked innumerable questions, relevant and irrelevant. Where Mrs. Lee was born where she came from when she came to the city how long she had lived in New-York; how many children she had; what was her business; what was her husband's. "Strange," she said, "that when your husband was able to earn a living by writing, he should be so very poor — is he a sober man?"
Mrs. Lee's faded cheek glowed as she replied, "He could scarcely be otherwise in his present condition."
"Is he kind to you?"
Lucy looked up to her mother with tearful eyes. "Excuse me, ma'am," said Mrs. Lee, "from answering questions that have nothing to do with my child's qualifications."
"Hem! I understand — why have not you put out your child before?"
"I wanted her at home."
"The old excuse! Let me tell you, good woman, it's a very poor one. I am patroness of an infant school — I know children can't be taught too early."
"I have an infant school at home", replied Mrs. Lee, somewhat proudly.
"Oh, yes, I know; but your children get such shocking habits sosling about, and doing nothing, and living all in a clutter."
"What work do you wish to employ my child for, ma'am?"
"Oh, you should not be too particular. I make it a rule that a child should be willing to be called on for anything. I have two servants, and at most her work will not be worth speaking of. There are but two of us, I and husband."
At this juncture Mrs. Broadson was called out, and an Irish servant who remained in the room asked Mrs. Lee to sit down, and kindly drew a low chair for Lucy to the fire. "Warm ye, child," she said, "you look kilt with the cold, and being questioned at this way, and no use either." Lucy was exhausted, and the kind word, and not the concluding intimation, opened a fountain of tears. "Och, child! ye should not fret," continued her consoler, "ye'll be after soon finding a place. It is not with you as with them that an't born in their native land — like my poor Judy M'Phealan!"
Mrs. Broadson's return interrupted this flow of kindness; and that lady, after higgling about wages, and making many comments upon the extravagant demands of servants, and their worthlessness "nowadays," agreed to receive Lucy the next Monday morning. This was almost a measure of desperation on Mrs. Lee's part. She had fruitlessly exhausted her day, and this was apparently the best situation that had offered. The family was small. There was an air of order and thrift in the house, and that, with the kindness of the Irish woman, Lucy's only fellow-servant, had decided Mrs. Lee. "Sure!" said this same woman, as the door closed after Mrs. Lee, with a face so changed that she scarcely seemed the same, "sure you do not mane to give this one the place you promised to Judy?"
"I mean to have two strings to my bow. If Judy don't come — "
"But sure she'll be after coming."
"Well, if she does, Biddy, you may take time to look her up another place. It's natural, you know, I should prefer an American girl."
"And this is the way you ladies keep your word to us, and then complain that we are not up to the mark! Poor Judy! God help her!"
Is the failure in the performance of contracts between employers and employed so generally complained of confined to one of the contracting parties? We ask the experienced.
- This may seem an extravagant case, but we have heard from a lady that her cook—a coloured woman—offered to lend her her own new blonde cap for a model!