Encouraging the Poor
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"Do you know of any poor person who does plain sewing?" asked Mrs. Lander of a neighbor upon whom she called for the particular purpose of making this inquiry. "I have a good deal of work that I want done, and I always like to give my plain sewing to people that need it."
"I think I know of a person who will suit you," replied Mrs. Brandon, the lady to whom the application had been made. "She is a poor widow woman, with four children dependent upon her for support. She sews neatly. Yesterday she brought me home some little drawers and night-gowns that were beautifully made. I am sure she will please you, and I know she deserves encouragement."
"What is her name?"
"Mrs. Walton; and she lives in Larkin's Court."
"Thank you, ma'am. I will send for her this morning. You say she is very poor?"
"You may judge of that yourself, Mrs. Lander. A woman who has four children to support by the labor of her own hands cannot be very well off."
"No — certainly not. Poor creature! I will throw all I can in her way, if her work should please me."
"I am sure that will be the case, for she sews very neatly."
Mrs. Lander having found out a poor woman who could do plain sewing — she was always more ready to employ people in extreme poverty than those who were in more easy circumstances — immediately sent a summons for her to attend upon her. Mrs. Walton's appearance, when she came, plainly enough told the story of her indigence.
"Mrs. Brandon informs me," said Mrs. Lander, "that you do plain sewing very well, and that you stand in need of work. I always like to encourage the industrious poor."
The woman inclined her head, and Mrs. Lander went on.
"Do you make shirts?"
"Yes, ma'am, sometimes."
"Do you consider yourself a good shirt maker?"
"I don't call myself anything very special; but people for whom I work seem generally pleased with what I do."
"I have six shirts cut out for Mr. Lander. How soon can you make them?"
"I couldn't make them all in less than a couple of weeks, as I have other work that must be done within that time."
"Very well. That will do."
The poor woman took the shirts home, feeling grateful to Mrs. Brandon for having recommended her, and thankful to get the work. In order to give satisfaction to both her new customer, and those for whom she already had work in the house, she divided her time between them, sewing one day for Mrs. Lander and the next on the work received before hers came in. At the end of a week, three of the shirts were ready, and, as she needed very much the money she had earned in making them, she carried them over to Mrs. Lander on Saturday afternoon.
"I have three of the shirts ready," said she, as she handed to the lady the bundle she had brought.
"Ah! have you?" remarked Mrs. Lander, as, with a grave face, she opened the bundle and examined the garments. This examination was continued with great minuteness, and long enough almost to have counted every stitch in the garments. She found the shirts exceedingly well made; much better than she had expected to find them.
"When will you have the others ready?" she asked, as she laid them aside.
"I will try and bring them in next Saturday."
Then came a deep silence. The poor woman sat with the fingers of both hands moving together uneasily, and Mrs. Lander looked away out of the window and appeared to be intent upon something in the street.
"Are these made to please you?" Mrs. Walton ventured to ask.
"They'll do," was the brief answer; and then came the same dead silence, and the same interest on the part of the lady in something passing in the street.
Mrs. Walton needed the money she had earned for making the shirts, and Mrs. Lander knew it.
But Mrs. Lander never liked to pay out money, if she could help it; and as doing so always went against the grain, it was her custom to put off such unpleasant work as long as possible. She liked to encourage the very poor, because she knew they generally worked cheaper than people who were in easier circumstances; but the drawback in their case was, that they always needed money the moment their work was done.
As badly as she stood in need of the money she had earned, poor Mrs. Walton felt reluctant to ask for it until the whole number of shirts she had engaged to make were done; and so, after sitting for a little while longer, she got up and went away. It happened that she had expended her last sixpence on that very morning, and nothing was due to her from anyone but Mrs. Lander. Two days at least would elapse before she would have any other work ready to take home, and what to do in the mean time she did not know. With her the reward of every day's labor was needed when the labor was done; but now she was unpaid for full four days' work, and her debtor was a lady much interested in the welfare of the poor, who always gave out her plain sewing to those who were in need of encouragement.
By placing in pawn some few articles of dress, and paying a heavy interest upon the little sum of money advanced thereon, the poor widow was able to keep hunger from her door until she could finish some work she had in hand for a lady more considerate than Mrs. Lander. Then she applied herself with renewed industry to the three shirts yet to make, which she finished at the time she promised to have them done. With the money to be received for these, she was to pay one dollar and a half to get her clothes from the pawnbroker's shop, buy her little boy a pair of shoes — he had been from school a week for lack of them — and get a supply of food for the many mouths she had to feed.
Mrs. Lander received her with that becoming dignity of manner and gravity which certain people always assume when money has to be paid out. She, as it behooved her to do, thoroughly examined every seam, line of stitching, and hem upon each of the three shirts, and then, after slowly laying the garments upon a table sighed, and looked still graver. Poor Mrs. Walton felt oppressed; she hardly knew why.
"Does the work please you?" she ventured to ask.
"I don't think these are as well made as the others," said Mrs. Lander.
"I thought they were better made," returned the woman.
"Oh, no. The stitching on the bosoms, collars, and wristbands isn't nearly so well done."
Mrs. Walton knew better than this; but she did not feel in any humor to contend for the truth. Mrs. Lander took up the shirts again, and made another examination.
"What is the price of them?" she asked.
"Seventy-five cents apiece!"
"I have never received less than that, and some for whom I sew always pay me a dollar."
"Seventy five cents! It is an imposition. I know plenty of poor women who would have been glad of these shirts at half the price — yes, or at a third of the price either. Seventy-five cents, indeed! Oh, no — I will never pay a price like that. I can go to any professed shirt-maker in the city, and get them made for seventy-five cents or a dollar."
"I know you can, ma'am," said Mrs. Walton, stung into self-possession by this unexpected language. "But why should I receive less if my work is as well done?"
"A pretty question, indeed!" retorted Mrs. Lander, thrown off her guard. "A pretty question for you to ask of me! Oh, yes! You can get such prices if you can, but I never pay them to people like you. When I pay seventy-five cents or a dollar apiece for shirts, I go to regular shirt-makers. But this is what we generally get for trying to encourage the poor. Mrs. Brandon said that you were in needy circumstances, and that it would be a charity to give you work. But this is the way it generally turns out."
"What are you willing to pay?" asked the poor woman, choking down her feelings.
"I have had shirts as well made as these for forty cents many a time. There is a poor woman down in Southwark, who sews beautifully, who would have caught at the job. She works for the shops, and does not get over twenty-five cents for fine shirts. But as Mrs. Brandon said you were suffering for work, I thought I would throw something in your way. Forty cents is an abundance; but I had made up my mind, under the circumstances, to make it fifty, and that is all I will give. So here is your money — three dollars."
And Mrs. Lander took out her purse, and counted out six half dollars upon the table. Only for a few moments did the poor woman hesitate. Bread she must have for her children; and if her clothes were not taken out of pawn on that day, they would be lost. Slowly did she take up the money while words of stinging rebuke were on her tongue. But she forced herself to keep silence; and even departed, bearing the wrong that had been laid upon her without uttering a word.
"Did you get my shoes as you promised, mother?" eagerly inquired her little boy, as she came in, on returning from the house of Mrs. Lander.
"No, dear," replied the heart-full mother, in a subdued voice. "I didn't get as much money as I expected."
"When will you buy them, mother?" asked the child as tears filled his eyes. "I can't go to school in this way." And he looked down at his bare feet.
"I know you can't, Harry; and I will try and get them for you in a few days."
The child said no more, but shrunk away with his little heart so full of disappointment, that he could not keep the tears from gushing over his face. The mother's heart was quite as full. Little Harry sat down in a corner to weep in silence, and Mrs. Walton took her sewing into her hands; but the tears so blinded her eyes, that she could not see where to direct the needle. Before she had recovered herself, there was a knock at the door, which was opened immediately afterwards by a lady, who came into the room where the poor widow sat with her little family around her.
More than an hour had passed since the unpleasant interview with the poor widow, and Mrs. Lander had not yet recovered her equanimity of mind nor lost the feelings of indignation which the attempt to impose upon her by an exorbitant charge had occasioned, when she was favored with a visit from Mrs. Brandon, who said familiarly, and with a smile, as she entered —
"Ah, how do you do, Mrs. Lander? I have just corrected a mistake you made a little while ago."
"Indeed! what is that?" asked Mrs. Lander, looking a little surprised.
"You only gave poor Mrs. Walton fifty cents apiece for the half dozen of shirts she made for you, when the lowest price is seventy-five cents. I always pay a dollar for Mr. Brandon's. The difference is a very important one to her — no less than a dollar and a half. I found her in much trouble about it, and her little boy crying with disappointment at not getting a pair of shoes his mother had promised him as soon as she got the money for the shirts. He has been from school for lack of shoes for more than a week. So I took out my purse and gave Mrs. Walton the dollar and a half to make up the sum she had earned, and told her I would see you about it. I acted right, did I not? Of course, it was a mistake on your part?"
Mrs. Lander was never more completely out-generaled in her life. The lady who had corrected her error was one in whose good opinion she had every reason for desiring to stand high. She could grind the face of the poor without pity or shame, but for the world she would not be thought cheap by Mrs. Brandon.
"I am very much obliged to you, indeed," she said with a bland smile. "It was altogether a mistake on my part, and I blame the woman exceedingly for not having mentioned it at the time. Heaven knows I am the last person in the world to grind the faces of the poor! Yes, the very last person. Here is the money you paid for me, and I must repeat my thanks for your prompt correction of the error. But I cannot help feeling vexed at the woman."
"We must make many allowances for the poor, Mrs. Lander. They often bear a great deal of wrong without a word of complaint. Some people take advantage of their poverty, and, because they are poor, make them work for the merest pittance in the world. I know some people, and they well off in the world, who always employ the poorest class of people, and this under the pretense of favoring them, but, in reality, that they may get their work done at a cheaper rate than it can be made by people who expect to derive from their labor a comfortable support."
Mrs. Lander was stung to the quick by these words; but she dared not show the least sign of feeling.
"Surely no one professing to be a Christian can do so," said she.
"Yes, people professing to be Christians do these things," was replied; "but of course their profession needs a better practice to prove it of any worth."
When her visitor retired, after having expressed her opinion on the subject under consideration still more unequivocally, Mrs. Lander did not feel very comfortable, nor was her good opinion of herself quite so firm as it had been earlier in the day. But she took good care, in the future, not to give any more work to Mrs. Walton, and was exceedingly particular afterwards, in employing poor people, to know whether they sewed for Mrs. Brandon.
There are a good many people in the world who encourage the poor on Mrs. Lander's principle.