A Romance of the Poor

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A Romance of The Poor.


A little, faded, gentle-faced woman climbed the long stairs of a tenement house on the west side. It was not one of the worst of such places, for some attempt at sanitation, cleanliness and respectability were evident in the painted woodwork, calsomined walls and wide skylight over the center “wells." But any kind of a building crowded with humanity and little money must be more or less dismal and unwholesome. The little woman carried a large yellow- brow_n paper bundle, and her steps indicated weariness as she mounted the stairs and walked down the long hall, which was well littered with bits of paper, straws and dust. She stopped at last before a plain door and opened it. A little girl of ten, and small for her years,_ sat on a rug in the middle of the floor, sewing on bits of wooolen cloth, while two rag dolls lay at her side. The room was otherwise furnished with a sewing machine, a little cookstove, a table, a cupboard made of pine boards, a cot and a wardrobe formed by fastening an old quilt diagonally across one corner of the room. "Oh. mammal” exclaimed the little girl, springing to her feet, “I am so glad you have come. I thought it was a long time ’cause I wanted to go out of doors, and I promised I wouldn’t till you got back.” “I walked home, dear, because I had to pay for some alterations in the cloaks I returned, and I couldn't afford car fare." “Oh, you poor tired little mother! Nearly two miles, and you carried those heavy bun- dles! Now see here, mamma. You must let me go to work, and we will both go to the shop and stay all day and not haul these heavy things back and forth in our arms. I've been to school long enough, and I can’t have you killing yourself this way. I can help a great deal, and we can both together earn enough to pay car fare when you are tired.” “But you’re not fourteen yet, Mamie. They won't let you work." Maude’s bright face clouded over. “But Jennie Turner works, and she’s seven days? younger than I am. How does that hap- pen." “I suppose they must have told an untruth about it.” “Well, mamma. I'm going to help you some way or other. Only sit down and rest now and I'll get supper. I washed the dishes all nice and clean after dinner and swept the room. And after supper we'll go to the neigh- borhood park and hear the band play. I'll find a nice seat for you, and the fresh air and the music will rest you.” _ Eventually Mamie was admitted into the factory, for when both parties to a contract were anxious to evade the law it can easily be done. Before this happened, however. l\'ll'S. Corning had heard of a shop on the same floor in the tenement, and she thought she would apply there for work, so as to he near home and not be obliged to take Mamie out of school. She knocked at the door one morning, and found one middle sized room in which eighteen people were working; sew- ing machines, great heaps of woolen cloth, piles of half-finished garments, dust, paper, dirt filled up every spot of space not occupied by human beings, while the air was hot and fetid. ‘Mrs. Corning shuddered, and with an apology hurried away. Though she starved, she could not go to work there. Mamie did not like to go to school. One reason was that she was a proud-spirited little thing and she could not wear dresses as good as the other girls wore; she felt, too, that she was spending too much time for the little teachin she received. She preferred to work and help her mother, and believed that with reading aloud to her mother in the evening and keeping her mother's accounts with the shop and the landlord and the grocer she could obtain enough education for the present. Mamie was bright, cheerful, courageous and confident, and very quick to learn the ways of the world. It was hard to quench her spirits, and by her ready wits and keen per- ceptions saved her mother from being the victim of many a “grafter" and professional beggar. And so Mamie went to work in the big suit factory downtown. At first the novelty of it made the long days endurable. and the thought of helping her mother, who was not strong, was a fresh inspiration every morning. Then Mamie became a great favorite with every one about the establishment. Of course, not one had time for the cultivation of their social faculties, but as Mamie passed about the place, in the press room. the examining department, the work room, her bright smile and friendly word cheered many a poor toiler and drew their hearts out to her. So for a long time Mamie was not unhappy in her new place.

A very pretty girl, who tried on sample cloaks and jackets in the examining room, be- came the object of Mamie’s special admira- tion, and her ‘liking was returned, and in a short time the two were great friends. “Miss Dollie." as she was called; was pleasant and good natured, and she found that Mamie’s cheerful face and vivacious ways brightened the long tiresome hours for her very greatly‘ They usually spent the short noon recess to- gether, and shared with each other whatever little treat or bit of fun or pleasantry that came to them. Each helped the other to lighten the days of toil.

But Mamie’s active nature could illy en- dure the close confinement of the factory; the foul air, the dust, the monotony began to tell on her in two or three months. Her laugh and jest were heard less frequently, her rosy cheeks were growing pale, and she seemed to be losing her air of cheerfulness and good courage.

Her mother watched her with deep anxiety, but she felt helpless. They must both work in order to live, and now that the regular season of cloak making was over and the summer was at its hottest the hands were put on the cheapest kind of “slop work." Even when both mother and daughter worked from seven till six as fast as fingers could fly, they could scarcely pay their rent and buy actual necessi- ties. They dared not stop for a single hour, though at the close of every ugly, tiresome day brought with it a feeling of utter exhaustion. But for a half hour stolen now and then and on Sundays at the parks—those modern blessings for the poor—they must have died. They could not afford the whole of Sunday for the parks, for on that day their own necessary work had to be done, such as washing, ironing, cleaning, mending and “making over." The young people in the shop were talking of a picnic to be held in the near future,_ a trip to the woods on the lake shore southeast of the city, on the cars. It would be an ideal day for those toilers, who were compelled to live nearly a half of their lives in a hot, dusty, crowded, ugly room, working like mad every moment while there. They argued that it would not be extravagantly expensive——only the car fare and the loss of one day's work-- and it would do them all so much good. Mamie, of course, was eager to go. It seemed to her like the promise of a day in paradise. Her mother said they would try and arrange that she should go; the tickets were seventy-five cents, and they could not afford the trip for both. Mamie felt ver_y sad over this fact, and once thought of staying at home with her mother rather than take the pleasure she must be deprived of. But that was too serious a secrifice _to_ contemplate. And so she dreamed of the picnic both by day and by night, and forgot that time would still go on after the important day. _ l\'Iiss Dollie was going, she had told Mamie so herself. with a charm_ing little blush that Mamie was quick to notice. _ “You're going with your beau, ain't you, Miss Dollie?” _ _ _ “Yes, Mamie, if—if he gets into the city in time.” “Which one is it?" “\Vhy, are there so many?" “Yes; you know four or five, at least, who want to go with you.” _ “yVell, you've never seen this one, but you wil ." So Mamie had an added joy to h_ug to her soul. but she kept the secret, as Dollie believed she would. _ " But alas! for the plans of “mice_and men. On the day before the picnic Mamie's mother had to confess to her little daughter that she had been unable to save the price of a ticket from their meager wages; her face was pale and her lips trembled, for she knew how much it meant to Mamie. She told her how she had tried to borrow the money, but where all her friends were poor this was a very difiicult thing to do. Mamie choked back the tears and swallowed a sob for poor mamma’s sake. But her simple lawn dress was all done up and ready, and even a little bag of ham sand- wiches had been prepared-it was terribly hard to bear, and she could not quite give it up without crying, and the two wept together. Mamma bade her give up work for the day and spend it in the park and to try and be as happy as she could. In the morning Mamie could not control her feelings, and so, to get away where she could cry unrestrainedly, she agreed to go to the park. Once there she found her favorite spot under a tree, threw herself on the grass and gave herself up to sobs and tears. A little earlier that same morning a belated train was rushing into the depot on Polk street, and from one of the platforms a young man was eagerly leaning and gazing anxiously up at the great depot clock. It was fifteen minutes late, and he must get over the Lake Shore depot before the last picnic train de- parted. How his train did creep! He leaped from the steps when the train slowed down and ran to catch zi street car, hoping that some accident might have delayed the other traim But he arrived at last, hot and perspiring, only to find the last train puffing out of sight far beyond his reach. Willis Carroll was a frank, honest, cheery fellow who worked in a neighboring town as a clerk. He had met Dollie Farnsworth some weeks before at a little party given by a mu- tual friend in the city, and he had admired her very deeply from the first. But she had so many admirers, and they all lived in the city, and he feared his chances were small. But he had got himself properly introduced to her aunt, with whom she lived, and had called several different times, and been otherwise so diligent that their acquaintance had prospered finely. And she had shyly told him of this picnic, and at his urgent request promised to go with him. He had felt so elated over it, and a little triumphant withal, for it was a decided victory over the other fellows. He could imagine Dollie in her pretty white dress with its pink ribbons, andihe knew she would not be left long alone. His disappointment was acute. He had hoped so much from this long. leisurely day—-and now, that presump- tious baseball chap, who was his greatest rival, would have things all his own way. And Dollie would think he did not care, and would flirt outrageously out of pique, and perhaps she would never make up with him again. He was dazed thinking about it. He thought if he were only a millionaire he would charter a special train; but there was nothing a poor clerk on slim weekly wages could do. He wandered over toward the west side, and finally came to the little park that was such a boon to the weary west side toilers through all the long surnmer months. Scarcely knowing what he was doing, he walked over to a rustic seat under a tree and sat down in the cool shade. But presently he heard the sound of weeping, unrepressed weeping, as though some one's heart was nearly broken. He peered around the shrubbery and saw a little girl in a faded calico dress and a bat- tered straw hat, lying prone upon the grass, crying in utter abandonment. "Hallo !" he exclaimed, “somebody else has been getting disappointed! What's the matter, little girl? Train go off and leave you, too?" - Mamie raised her head abruptly. She meant to resent the interference of the in- truder, but the face she saw was so kindly and open that she felt she had found a friend. “Yes, I s'pose it's gone by this time. I wanted to go to the picnic, and couldn't ’cause mother couldn't get the money.” "I can't go, either, and I wish I could cry it out as you can.” “You don't feel as bad as I do, I know. Didn't you have the seventy-five cents, either? You look as if you might have that much." - “Yes, I believe 1 could have raised the coin, but I didn’t get to the depot in time. And so—well, I suppose she's gone with another fellow, and I feel pretty badly.” “Who is ‘she?’ Your girl?” "I like to call her my girl, but I don't know whether she thinks she is or not.” “Oh, I'm so sorry,” and Mamie looked at him "with such a genuine sympathy looking lflrom her reddened eyes that an idea came to him. “I'll tell you, little girl, let's comfort one another and have a picnic all to ourselves.” “Honest Injun?" “Yes, we'll take a train south and go as far as we can, go to the lake shore and watch the waves, and maybe take a boatride." A happy light came into Mamie's eyes, and then it faded. “But folks can't have a picnic without din- ner. I might run home and get the three sandwiches I was going to take. We could divide 'em." "Oh, we'll find a restaurant somewhere and some ice-cream, and we'll have a good time any way. But how about your mother—will she let you go?” “Yes, sheltold me I could have the -day; it'll be all right. Oh, my!" this last she exclaimed under her breath, almost dazed with joy. And so the two started away, Mamie skip- ping about the more sedate steps of the other adventurer in her happiness. They found a suburban train just starting out and were quickly aboard. They had a good time. They went to the water's edge and watched the lazy waves creep in over the sand; they built walls, cita- dels and forts; they hunted for odd pebbles, and threw stones into the water. At noon Vi/illis hunted up a restaurant, where they had what was in Mamir'< judgment the most sumptuous repast thn: could be gotten up, fin- ishing otf with a dish of delicious ice-cream! '.~‘\fter dinner they rested ~-bile on the sands, then took :1 ride ti a z oat, and Mamie was happier than any 1, drinking in the pit‘ ‘aka ‘me-ezes, watch» 4 the sunbeams lighting up the waves with a 2:-'-len splendor, watching also Mr. Carroll's C3.~}' strokes. She wondered if any body else could row a boat as well. I/Vhen they returned to land they wandered away to a bit of woo-l= and dis- covered some real wild flower» whwl-. Mamie eagerly plucked, to wither away in llk - xeaty hands. _ And finally, as the sun was going -'--WWII. they sought the lttle depot to wait t'_.r the first train that should come along. When it came, behold, it was one of the big picnic trains, and on the car which they boarded Mamie found several of the young people she knew. And Carroll, looking eagerly down the whole length of the car, presently saw the girl he wanted to see, sitting alone, gazing out of the window and apparently in a sad and silent humor. He hurried to the seat and took it, with Mamie on hisknee. Poor Mamie was none too neat after her day of joy, in her faded calico dress, shabby hat, sunburned skin and ‘freckles, with her hair flying in untidy wisps about her face, and Willis might have been excused if he had evinced a little embarrassment at going into the presence of the girl he hoped to win, with such a charge. But he showed no signs of shame as he watched for the girl to turn around. Mamie gave one glance.

“Why, it's- Dollie!" she exclaimed, and the young lady turned her head.

“Mamie!” she exclaimed in amazement. and then she glanced up at her companion. She gave him a very cool bow, saying, “I did not expect to see you on this train."

Willis Carroll was not the man to allow a little coldness to interfere with his happiness if by any possible means it could be dispelled. He plunged into his explanations, finishing up with an account of meeting Mamie, and how they had taken pity on one another and gone on a picnic by themselves. “I was too miserable to live this morning. How have you spent the day, Dollie?" For Willis was growing bold; he had seen the baseball fellow lounging sulkily near the front door, and it gave him courage.

Dollie ignored the question; she whispered, “How good it was of you!" and the young man blushed like a girl. An idea seemed to strike Mamie suddenly. '

“Why, say! Is Dollie your girl?"

“I hope so. Mamie," he answered softly.

And’ Dollie whispered to Mamie, “You may tell him I am, Mamie,” and Willis felt as well content as though he had had the whole day with Dollie.

Mamie found two true friends in the happy couple. Mamie’s mother was engaged to make the wedding dress, and after that better work was found for her, and Mamie was sent to school again. And so this little romance of real life among the poor ended happily.

  • Holmes, Lizzie M. “A Romance of the Poor.” The International Wood-Worker 15, no. 7 (July 1905): 200–202.