List Of Contents | Contents of The Golden House, by Charles Dudley Warner
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

been favorable, and there had been a little stir of tenderness among the
bonnets over Thackeray's comments on the Christian soldier.  It seemed to
bring him near to them.  "Poor Dick Steele!" said the essayist.  Edith
declared afterwards that the large woman who sat next to her, Mrs. Jerry
Hollowell, whispered to her that she always thought his name was
Bessemer; but this was, no doubt, a pleasantry.  It was a beautiful
essay, and so stimulating!  And then there was bouillon, and time to look
about at the toilets.  Poor Steele, it would have cheered his life to
know that a century after his death so many beautiful women, so
exquisitely dressed, would have been concerning themselves about him.
The function lasted two hours.  Edith made a little calculation.  In five
minutes she could have got from the encyclopaedia all the facts in the
essay, and while her maid was doing her hair she could have read five
times as much of Steele as the essayist read.  And, somehow, she was not
stimulated, for the impression seemed to prevail that now Steele was
disposed of.  And she had her doubts whether literature would, after all,
prove to be a permanent social distraction.  But Edith may have been too
severe in her judgment.  There was probably not a woman in the class that
day who did not go away with the knowledge that Steele was an author, and
that he lived in the eighteenth century.  The hope for the country is in
the diffusion of knowledge.

Leaving the class to take care of Swift, Edith went to the managers'
meeting at the Women's Hospital, where there was much to do of very
practical work, pitiful cases of women and children suffering through no
fault of their own, and money more difficult to raise than sympathy.
The meeting took time and thought.  Dismissing her carriage, and relying
on elevated and surface cars, Edith then took a turn on the East Side,
in company with a dispensary physician whose daily duty called her into
the worst parts of the town.  She had a habit of these tours before her
marriage, and, though they were discouragingly small in direct results,
she gained a knowledge of city life that was of immense service in her
general charity work.  Jack had suggested the danger of these excursions,
but she had told him that a woman was less liable to insult in the East
Side than in Fifth Avenue, especially at twilight, not because the East
Side was a nice quarter of the city, but because it was accustomed to see
women who minded their own business go about unattended, and the prowlers
had not the habit of going there.  She could even relate cases of
chivalrous protection of "ladies" in some of the worst streets.

What Edith saw this day, open to be seen, was not so much sin as
ignorance of how to live, squalor, filthy surroundings acquiesced in as
the natural order, wonderful patience in suffering and deprivation,
incapacity, ill-paid labor, the kindest spirit of sympathy and
helpfulness of the poor for each other.  Perhaps that which made the
deepest impression on her was the fact that such conditions of living
could seem natural to those in them, and that they could get so much
enjoyment of life in situations that would have been simple misery to

The visitors were in a foreign city.  The shop signs were in foreign
tongues; in some streets all Hebrew.  On chance news-stands were
displayed newspapers in Russian, Bohemian, Arabic, Italian, Hebrew,
Polish, German-none in English.  The theatre bills were in Hebrew or
other unreadable type.  The sidewalks and the streets swarmed with noisy
dealers in every sort of second-hand merchandise--vegetables that had
seen a better day, fish in shoals.  It was not easy to make one's way
through the stands and push-carts and the noisy dickering buyers and
sellers, who haggled over trifles and chaffed good-naturedly and were
strictly intent on their own affairs.  No part of the town is more
crowded or more industrious.  If youth is the hope of the country, the
sight was encouraging, for children were in the gutters, on the house
steps, at all the windows.  The houses seemed bursting with humanity,
and in nearly every room of the packed tenements, whether the inmates
were sick or hungry, some sort of industry was carried on.  In the damp
basements were junk-dealers, rag-pickers, goose-pickers.  In one noisome
cellar, off an alley, among those sorting rags, was an old woman of
eighty-two, who could reply to questions only in a jargon, too proud to
beg, clinging to life, earning a few cents a day in this foul occupation.
But life is sweet even with poverty and rheumatism and eighty years.
Did her dull eyes, turning inward, see the Carpathian Hills, a free
girlhood in village drudgery and village sports, then a romance of love,
children, hard work, discontent, emigration to a New World of promise?
And now a cellar by day, the occupation of cutting rags for carpets, and
at night a corner in a close and crowded room on a flock bed not fit for
a dog.  And this was a woman's life.

Picturesque foreign women going about with shawls over their heads and
usually a bit of bright color somewhere, children at their games, hawkers
loudly crying their stale wares, the click of sewing-machines heard
through a broken window, everywhere animation, life, exchange of rough or
kindly banter.  Was it altogether so melancholy as it might seem?  Not
everybody was hopelessly poor, for here were lawyers' signs and doctors'
signs--doctors in whom the inhabitants had confidence because they
charged all they could get for their services--and thriving pawnbrokers'
shops.  There were parish schools also--perhaps others; and off some dark
alley, in a room on the ground-floor, could be heard the strident noise
of education going on in high-voiced study and recitation.  Nor were
amusements lacking --notices of balls, dancing this evening, and ten-cent
shows in palaces of legerdemain and deformity.

It was a relenting day in March; patches of blue sky overhead, and the
sun had some quality in its shining.  The children and the caged birds at
the open windows felt it-and there were notes of music here and there
above the traffic and the clamor.  Turning down a narrow alley, with a
gutter in the centre, attracted by festive sounds, the visitors came into
a small stone-paved court with a hydrant in the centre surrounded by tall
tenement-houses, in the windows of which were stuffed the garments that
would no longer hold together to adorn the person.  Here an Italian girl
and boy, with a guitar and violin, were recalling la bella Napoli, and a
couple of pretty girls from the court were footing it as merrily as if it
were the grape harvest.  A woman opened a lower room door and sharply
called to one of the dancing girls to come in, when Edith and the doctor
appeared at the bottom of the alley, but her tone changed when she
recognized the doctor, and she said, by way of apology, that she didn't
like her daughter to dance before strangers.  So the music and the dance
went on, even little dots of girls and boys shuffling about in a stiff-
legged fashion, with applause from all the windows, and at last a
largesse of pennies--as many as five altogether--for the musicians.
And the sun fell lovingly upon the pretty scene.

But then there were the sweaters' dens, and the private rooms where half
a dozen pale-faced tailors stitched and pressed fourteen and sometimes
sixteen hours a day, stifling rooms, smelling of the hot goose and
steaming cloth, rooms where they worked, where the cooking was done,
where they ate, and late at night, when overpowered with weariness, lay
down to sleep.  Struggle for life everywhere, and perhaps no more
discontent and heart-burning and certainly less ennui than in the palaces
on the avenues.

The residence of Karl Mulhaus, one of the doctor's patients, was typical
of the homes of the better class of poor.  The apartment fronted on a
small and not too cleanly court, and was in the third story.  As Edith
mounted the narrow and dark stairways she saw the plan of the house.
Four apartments opened upon each landing, in which was the common hydrant
and sink.  The Mulhaus apartment consisted of a room large enough to
contain a bed, a cook-stove, a bureau, a rocking-chair, and two other
chairs, and it had two small windows, which would have more freely
admitted the southern sun if they had been washed, and a room adjoining,
dark, and nearly filled by a big bed.  On the walls of the living room
were hung highly colored advertising chromos of steamships and palaces of
industry, and on the bureau Edith noticed two illustrated newspapers of
the last year, a patent-medicine almanac, and a volume of Schiller.  The
bureau also held Mr. Mulhaus's bottles of medicine, a comb which needed a
dentist, and a broken hair-brush.  What gave the room, however, a
cheerful aspect were some pots of plants on the window-ledges, and half a
dozen canary-bird cages hung wherever there was room for them.

None of the family happened to be at home except Mr. Mulhaus, who
occupied the rocking-chair, and two children, a girl of four years and a
boy of eight, who were on the floor playing "store" with some blocks of
wood, a few tacks, some lumps of coal, some scraps of paper, and a tangle
of twine.  In their prattle they spoke, the English they had learned from
their brother who was in a store.

"I feel some better today," said Mr. Mulhaus, brightening up as the
visitors entered, "but the cough hangs on.  It's three months since this
weather that I haven't been out, but the birds are a good deal of
company."  He spoke in German, and with effort.  He was very thin and
sallow, and his large feverish eyes added to the pitiful look of his
refined face.  The doctor explained to Edith that he had been getting
fair wages in a type-foundry until he had become too weak to go any
longer to the shop.

It was rather hard to have to sit there all day, he explained to the
doctor, but they were getting along.  Mrs. Mulhaus had got a job of
cleaning that day; that would be fifty cents.  Ally--she was twelve--was
learning to sew.  That was her afternoon to go to the College Settlement.

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: