Read CHAPTER II - Domestic Service    of An Anarchist Woman , free online book, by Hutchins Hapgood, on ReadCentral.com.

When Marie was about fifteen years old, her mother took her away from the factories and put her into domestic service. Factory work was telling on the girl’s health, and the night freedom it involved did not please her mother. The young woman for some time had felt the charms of associating with many boys and girls unchaperoned and untrammelled. She liked the streets at night better than her home.

“When I got into the street,” said Marie, “I felt like a dog let loose.” Of course, she hated to go into domestic service, where the evenings would no longer be all her own, but her mother was still strong enough to have her way.

“At that time,” Marie wrote me, “I was a poor, awkward girl, somewhat stupid, perhaps, but who would not be at my age and in the same environment? I had received most of my education in the factories and stores down-town, which was perhaps beneficial to everybody but me. Even my mother, who in some ways was stupid and hard, noticed that this sort of education was likely to have what is called a demoralizing effect on me. So she induced a kind-hearted, philanthropic woman, Mrs. Belshow, to take me as servant girl. Mrs. Belshow was high in affairs of the Hull House Settlement Workers, and generously paid my mother one dollar and a half a week for my services.

“Mrs. Belshow had a beautiful house. At first these fine surroundings, to which I was entirely unused, made me more awkward than ever. But soon I got accustomed to the place and became very serviceable to my employer. I was lady’s maid as well as general housekeeper, and my fine lady duly appreciated my work, for she never asked me to do service after half-past nine at night or before half-past five in the morning. Besides, she allowed me Sunday afternoon free, but only to go to church or Sunday School. For the honourable lady told me very kindly that she did not wish to interfere with my religion in any way whatever. This advice I accepted meekly, as I was greatly in awe of her, though I should have much preferred to spend my half holiday in my home locality and to dance there with other stupid boys and girls in Lammer’s Hall, where the entrancing strains of the concertina were to be heard every Sunday afternoon. The young folks out that way were not strong on religion; or, if they were, they would receive all the soul’s medicine necessary by attending church in the morning, no doubt thereby feeling more vigorous and fit for enjoying the dance afterwards.

“But I, poor stupid, had learned from my mistress that dance-halls were vile and abominable. Of course, I believed all that Mrs. Belshow told me. I had not the slightest idea that she did not know everything. Why, she belonged to Hull House, that big place in Halsted Street, which had flowers and lace curtains in all the windows, and big looking-glasses and carpets and silver things on the inside; and many beautiful ladies who wore grand silk dresses and big hats with feathers came to see my mistress nearly every day, and they all talked a great deal about the evils of dance-halls and saloons and theatres. I had always stupidly thought that those places were very nice, especially the dance-halls, because I always enjoyed myself there better than anywhere else. I had never been in a theatre, but I had often been in the saloons to rush the can for my father, and I had noticed that people seemed to enjoy themselves there. There were long green tables in the saloons on which men played pool, and there were books scattered about in which were jokes and funny pictures. And the men played cards and told stories and danced and sang and did about anything they wanted to. This seemed to me good, and I felt sure at the time that if I were a man I should like to be there, too.

“But now I learned that these were terrible places, dens of vice and crime. What vice was, I did not know, but crime meant murdering somebody or doing something else dreadful. I thought about what I heard the fine ladies say until my poor little head became quite muddled. Left to myself, I could not see anything so terrible about these places, but if these finely dressed ladies said they were terrible, why they must be so. They knew better than I did. But I wondered dreamily if all terrible places were as nice as dance-halls.

“After the novelty of the situation wore away, life became rather wearisome to me, and I sometimes wished I were again working in the old factory. I thought of the evenings, when my day’s work in the factory was done and I was walking in the streets with my chums, telling them, perhaps, of the small girls who worked with me in the factory, and of the guys who waited for them on Saturday nights and took them to the show. And one of the girl’s guys always used to give her a whole box of the swellest candy you ever tasted.

“Dreaming thus one day of all the happy times I had known, I loitered over my work, as I fear I often did, and was sharply reprimanded by my mistress, the honourable lady, who wanted to speak to me as soon as possible on a matter of grave importance. I finished making the bed in a hurry and went into the presence of Mrs. Belshow, who said to me:

“‘My dear child, how old are you?’

“‘Past fifteen, ma’am.’

“’Fifteen! H’m, you’re quite a big girl for your age. I’m astonished that you have no more self-respect, or your mother for you! How is it that she allows you to go about with such short dresses? Why, it is shameful; I am surprised, for your mother seemed to me a sensible sort of a woman. I declare, I never would allow my daughter to expose herself in such a shameless manner, and I certainly will not allow anyone in my employ to do so. Only the other day my attention was called by some of my friends to your most careless condition. They said they could not help noticing it, it was so dreadful. It is this kind of thing which causes a great part of the vice and immorality with which we are surrounded. Unless a mother has common decency enough to clothe her child properly, it seems hopeless for us to accomplish anything. Now, my dear child, I want you to go home this very night and tell your mother you must positively have some long dresses, or no self-respecting person would care to associate with you. And you must try to have at least one respectable garment by Sunday, for I am ashamed to have you seen going out of my house in your present condition. Run along now and don’t be home later than ten this evening.’

“During this long harangue I stood gazing on the floor, blushing painfully. I wanted to tell my mistress why I had no longer dresses, but could only stammer ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am,’ and was very glad to escape from the room as soon as my lady had finished.

“When my mother heard about the affair, she was very indignant, and demanded why Mrs. Belshow did not buy the dresses for me. ‘For my part,’ she said, ’I have no money to waste on such trash. I’m sure, what you are wearing now is all right. It’s not so short, either, nearly down to your shoe tops. But I suppose I must get you something, or she will fire you. I’ll give you a dress that’ll be long enough all right one that goes right down to the floor, and if Mrs. Belshow doesn’t like it, she’ll have to lump it. I can’t afford to get you new dresses every year and you not through growing yet. Gee, that Mrs. Belshow must think we’re millionaires!’

“When I made my appearance the next Sunday morning in a neat long skirt, the honourable lady praised me very highly, saying that now I looked like a respectable young woman. ’Why, you actually look pretty, my child,’ she said. ’You must get a nice ribbon for your neck, and then you will be fine.’ This remark made me very happy, for I had been secretly longing for a dress of this kind. Now, at last, I was a real grown-up lady. Perhaps I might soon have a fellow, who would take me to the show, just like the girls in the factory. I thrilled with joy. Later I looked into the mirror a long while, admiring myself and dreaming of the afternoon, when I would be free. I decided that I would go to the dance, and pictured to myself how surprised and envious the other girls would be, when they saw me looking so fine. I would certainly not miss one single dance the whole afternoon, for I was sure the boys would be fascinated and that the swellest among them would see me home in the evening.

“These joys made the morning an unforgettable one; but soon it was time to get ready to go. I went to my room and curled my hair, and then was more pleased with myself than ever. I really looked pretty! Oh, the joy of it! I do not need to explain, even to a man. Briefly, I looked sweller than ever. The only thing needed to complete my toilet were some bright ribbons to fix in my hair and around my throat. I recollected having seen some very pretty ribbons in my mistress’s scrap-bag which would do admirably. So I brought the scrap bag from the store room and dumped the contents on my bed, and soon found just what I wanted two beautiful bits of silk. I hastily stitched them together, and was all ready to go. I could return the silk to the bag the next morning and my mistress would never know they had been gone. I thought regretfully what a shame it was to throw such beautiful things into a scrap-bag.

“Poor, vain little me! I came home later than usual, that never-to-be-forgotten night! very tired, but very happy. And I had been escorted all the way by the grandest young man I had ever known. I lay awake for a long time, reviewing everything that had happened. I had never dreamed it was possible to be so happy. It was because I was now a grown-up lady! I should never forget that all my happiness was due to my mistress, for it was through her that I had my long dress. I decided to be more serviceable than ever, not dream and dawdle over my work, and never to be angry when my mistress scolded me. I would disobey her only in one thing about going to Sunday School. At least, I would not go every week, perhaps every other Sunday, so she would not notice. In the midst of these good and delightful thoughts I fell asleep, and slept so soundly that the alarm bell in the clock did not awaken me at the usual hour.

“It did awaken Mrs. Belshow, however, who was just about to drop off to sleep again, when it occurred to her that she had not heard me moving about as usual, so she went to my room and aroused me in the midst of a beautiful dream about the handsomest boy you ever saw just as he was paying me the greatest attention!

“Jumping out of bed, I was horrified to find it was six o’clock, fully half an hour late. I rushed about my work, dreading the moment, yet wishing it were over, when my mistress should summon me for the scolding I was sure would come, for if there was one thing Mrs. Belshow hated more than anything else, it was being late. All too soon came the dreaded moment. Breakfast was scarcely over, when I was requested to go to my room. That was rather surprising, for, as a rule, I received my scolding in the lady’s room, while I was assisting her to pull on her stockings or comb her hair.

“I had scarcely crossed the threshold of my room when my knees knocked together and I nearly fell over, for there, standing in the centre of the room, with a piece of silk in her hand and an ominous frown on her face, stood my mistress. She pointed an accusing finger at me and asked coldly, ‘Where did you get this?’ Receiving no answer, she continued, ‘Don’t tell any lies, now, to add to your other crime.’ I stood there, as if glued to the floor and could only gaze at her dumbly and appealingly. I tried to speak in vain; but even if I had been able to, she would not have given me a chance. She brought all her eloquence to bear upon the stupid girl before her; she wanted to make me see what a very evil act I had committed.

“‘Oh, how sorry I am!’ she cried, ’that this thing has happened. But you are very fortunate that it has occurred in my house, rather than in somebody else’s, for I know what measures to take to cure you of the propensity to crime which you have so clearly shown. I shall, of course, have to send you away immediately; for I could never again trust you in my home, for although it is only a trifle that you have stolen, yes, deliberately stolen, yet anyone who takes only a pin that belongs to another, will take more when the opportunity offers. So, in order to cure you of this tendency, I myself will conduct you to your mother and impress upon her the necessity of guarding and watching you carefully, as a possible young criminal. I never should have expected this of you, for you have quite an honest look. Now, dress yourself quickly and bundle up whatever belongs to you. I will remain in the room while you are packing. Are you sure you have taken nothing else which does not belong to you?’

“This question loosened my tongue, which hitherto had clung tightly to the roof of my mouth. Dropping on my knees before my mistress, I fervently swore that I had taken nothing, that I had not meant to take anything. I had meant to wear the pieces of silk only once and then put them back where I had found them. With tears rolling down my face, I begged her not to tell my mother.

“‘I will work for you all my life without pay,’ I cried, ’if you will only not tell my mother. Indeed, I did not mean to steal, so please don’t tell my mother!’

“This I urged so vehemently and with such floods of tears that finally my kind-hearted mistress said: ’My dear child, if you will promise me faithfully never to do anything like this again, I will not tell your mother. But let this be a lesson to you; never to take anything again, not even a pin, that does not belong to you. You can never again say, with perfect truthfulness, that you have not stolen. I am glad to see that you have such respect for your mother that you do not want her to know of this, and for your sake I will not tell her. I have a meeting at Hull House to attend in half an hour, and before I leave I wish you would scrub up the kitchen and your room and then you can go.’

“So saying, the honourable lady left the room quite satisfied with herself for having (perhaps) rescued another human being from the paths of vice and crime. I went about my work with a heavy heart. Forgotten were all the joys of yesterday! Now, just as I was becoming used to my place, I must leave it. And I must tell my mother some reason for it. But I could not tell the truth. Ah! yes, I would say that my mistress was about to close up the house and go South for the winter. That would be a fine excuse. I had heard and read that many rich people go South for a time in the cold weather, so surely my mother would not doubt it. I went away, feeling easier in my mind, and never saw my honourable mistress again.

“Many days have passed since then, and I have been serving several different ladies. I learned a lesson from each one of them; but I shall never forget what I learned from the kind-hearted, philanthropic Mrs. Belshow, a prominent settlement worker in a large city. It’s a lesson that Mrs. Belshow will never learn, or could never understand. All of which shows, perhaps, that I was simple at the time rather than stupid; for I find that I am still receiving my education not from books, but from the way people treat me, and from what I see as I pass through life.”