The New Arcadia/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII.

CUTTING-OUT EXPEDITION AT THE GROTTO.

"Our most earnest philanthropists and zealous workers in the fields of sin and misery in crowded cities, are coming, more and more every day, to the conviction that an improvement in the physical conditions of life is the first indispensable condition of moral and religious progress."—S. Laing.

The women and girls of Mimosa Vale had assembled at the Grotto for their bi-weekly meeting, over which Maud presided.

"Anything to get away from wholesale factory life," the doctor often remarked when taking counsel as to means for clothing his huge family. Power had been laid on to many of the cottages. Sewing-machine or mangle, spindle or loom, could be attached and worked at a moment's notice.

The good people required, however, direction and assistance. For this purpose "cutting-out" expeditions had been provided at the Grotto. The clothing of one thousand souls—or rather bodies—was no small matter. Two-thirds of their means and energies humble people ordinarily spend in clothing their offspring. Intent, at every turn, upon economizing human labour, and sweetening the conditions of life, the doctor undertook to clothe, as to feed, his protégés with the expenditure of half the time and thought usually involved in the process.

The Grotto consisted of a large hall, decorated with pictures and statuary. The panels of the walls, on either hand, were hung on hinges from the wall-plates. In fine weather these sides, like the front of Eastern bazaars, were opened out and attached to a frame ten feet high. Beyond on either side lay a luxuriant garden of tree-ferns and shrubs. At the upper end was a rockery, about which lichens and maiden-hair, stag-horn and bird-nest were seeking to hide rugged rocks and gnarled roots. Down the centre a stream of water fell from rock to basin and fern-bed, winding through the well-kept grass-plots on either side of the hall. About the buildings and gardens were rustic seats and tables. In a bower at the upper end was, on one hand the "tea-garden," on the other the café.

When Maud arrived operations were in full swing. With a smile here and a word there, she glided through the groups of workers, and deposited her bundle on the long table on the daïs. There a score or so were busily engaged "cutting out." A committee were delivering to those who applied, calicoes, flannelettes, woollens, tweeds, and other materials. Two girl-clerks entered the goods against the applicants' names.

"The prettiest scene, I always think this," said Gwyneth to Maud, "in all the village."

"It is interesting," replied the latter, looking round upon the animated scene.

A buzz of animated conversation, ripples of happy laughter, mingled with the sound of the falling waters, and the singing of birds in the aviary. At every little table women sat cutting and arranging various articles of needful attire. The gowns the women wore were loose and flowing, gathered with a blue girdle about the waist, reaching somewhat below the knee. There was no corset-factory at Mimosa Vale. Material was not furnished, or aid given, for the manufacture of needless trappings and trammels. The consequence was that the women were as strong as the men. The two doctors of the community spent most of their time at the Perfume farm. For the men were being made red flannel shirts, white trousers, and white military-cut jackets. Waistcoats were discredited as unnecessary.

Some girls were engaged plaiting straw, others shaping and stitching hats—the men's with high crown, the women's with broad brim. Others were affixing red trimmings or bands.

Adjoining the Grotto was "the Bower," consisting of a hall with sides opening on to a garden, similar in arrangement to the Grotto, save that more machinery in the shape of sewing-machines, &c. was disposed about it. Only a partition, now pushed aside, separated the two enclosures. Here in the morning a party of boot-makers had wrought. Girls now occupied the room, sewing "uppers" and other concomitants for boot manufacture. (High heels, tapering toes, and kindred abominations were discarded.) Women wore sensible boots like the men, and walked, worked, and ran as though at length locomotion was not penance.

At one end of this building some girls and boys, with a few old men and women—grandfathers and grandmothers—were engaged in basket, brush, and broom manufacture. The broom-millet was grown most successfully on the estate. The stalk had been cut up and consigned to the silos by the ton. Thousands of bushels of the seed, much like sorghum, had been deposited in the poultry-farm granary. The broom fibres—oft blessed by all who ever possessed a foul pipe—were now being manufactured by old folk and children into an article superior to any "American broom." The fibre was quickly gathered together by hand, and bound round with fine wire worked by a spindle. The broomsticks, of native woods fashioned at the saw-mill, were inserted, and an article that brought each year thousands of pounds to the community was ready for use or sale.

Now from café and tea-garden fresh-cheeked waitresses, girls of the settlement, were emerging with tray in hand, serving tea and coffee and slices of brown bread or oatcake to the busy workers.

A blind father played beneath a fern-tree upon the harp he had made, his grandchildren, boy and girl, accompanying him on violins.

Gwyneth played the piano. Then the blacksmith's daughter poured through the buzz of conversation the swelling tones of the organ.

Maud touched a button—a dozen gongs sounded in Grotto and Bower, garden and hall, a signal for strict silence to be maintained.

The doctor appeared on the platform. He had promised half-an-hour's address. "A Grain of Wheat" was his topic.

Graphically, but lightly, with the aid of diagrams, he explained, for the benefit of the mothers and housekeepers of the present and coming generation, how three elements conduce to the building up of the human frame—Phosphates, Nitrates, and Carbonates, supplying respectively bone and sinew, flesh and fibre, fat and heat. The grain, he pointed out, contained in exact proportions the constituents needed for support of man. "Hence we speak," he said, "of 'the staff of life.' But men, in the outer world, had broken that staff, stripped the good grain of God of its precious outer coating; 'bolted,' refined, and 'silk-dressed' the product of Providence until nothing was left in the pasty, consumptive-looking 'refined flour' save fat and heat. God gives you 'whole meal,' satisfying, healthful nourishment. Never again," he concluded, "deprive your children of 'the food of God.'"

Again the buzz of conversation proceeded, with much comment on the doctor's playful sallies; the work never slackening meanwhile. By special request Maud recited, quietly, but very feelingly, Hood's 'Song of the shirt.' More than one eye was moistened. Dark visions of the old life arose for a moment in many a mind, like spectres of the past, thoughts of "sweating" in crowded alleys, vain bargainings for a halfpenny more a dozen with unfeeling representatives of fashionable firms—a dark background that cast into grateful relief the generous, rational life of the new world of labour.

"Thank you so much," whispered one of the girls, drying her eyes, "not only for the poetry, but for everything. I often think we are not half grateful enough. It was that very 'stitch, stitch, stitch!' that killed my mother. The life of the factory-hand in town—girl, boy, or man—is as different from this as jail must be from Government House. Oh, the crowd, the air, the noise, the tone!" The girl shuddered involuntarily as she recalled painful incidents of the past.

Once more the gongs sounded. "Gwyneth Elms," Maud announced, "will sing." From the Bower some of the girls strayed in, that they might hear better, for Gwyneth was prime favourite.

"'I cannot sing the old songs,' let us have that," suggested one.

"'I cannot sing the old songs,'" echoed a dozen voices.

"It is a little sad," expostulated Gwyneth.

Seating herself, however, at the piano, she struck the first chord, and the workers, peeping round distant pillars and above leafy ferns, stood in attitude of expectancy.

At that moment a child stepped on to the platform and handed a letter to Gwyneth. A boy had left it at the door. "Urgent" was written across the envelope. Gwyneth's voice failed; coughing, she asked for a glass of water. Thought of impending trouble, mishap to her father, or to some one else, instinctively prompted her to peep at the letter, as one handed the water. As she read, a flush of indignation mantled her cheeks, then a sense of cruel wrong and indignity caused her to turn pale and tremble. Remembering in a second that a hundred eyes were riveted upon her, she slipped the missive into her pocket and began her song.

"Cannot people pretend when they sing!" remarked stout Mrs. Strong. "You'd think to hear her that her heart was breaking."

"So it is, I believe," replied lean Mrs. Long; "don't you make no mistake, she feels it all. Didn't you see her get that letter just now?"

"She did have a turn. I thought she'd faint."

"It's all along of that Mr. Courtenay, that she's been carrying on with lately. Only trouble will come out of that, you mark my words."

"I'll never hear that song," replied her companion, threading her needle, "without hearin' that sweet tremblin' voice, and seein' that poor scared-lookin' face. It'll be many a day afore she sings that again, I'll be bound!"