Haven't the Change
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
It was house-cleaning time, and I had an old colored woman at work scrubbing and cleaning paint.
"Polly is going, ma'am," said one of my servants, as the twilight began to fall.
"Very well. Tell her that I shall want her tomorrow."
"I think she would like to have her money for today's work," said the girl.
I took out my purse, and found that I had nothing in it less than a two-dollar bill.
"How much does she have a day?"
"Six shillings, ma'am."
"I haven't the change this evening. Tell her that I'll pay for both days tomorrow."
The girl left the room, and I thought no more of Polly for an hour. Tea-time had come and passed, when one of my servants, who was rather communicative in her habits, said to me:
"I don't think old Polly liked your not paying her this evening."
"She must be very unreasonable, then," said I, without reflection. "I sent her word that I had no change. How did she expect I could pay her?"
"Some people are odd, you know, Mrs. Graham," remarked the girl who had made the communication, more for the pleasure of telling it than anything else.
I kept thinking over what the girl had said, until other suggestions came into my mind.
"I wish I had sent and got a bill changed," said I, as the idea that Polly might be really in need of money intruded itself. "It would have been very little trouble."
This was the beginning of a new train of reflections, which did not make me very happy. To avoid a little trouble, I had sent the poor old woman away, after a hard day's work, without her money. That she stood in need of it was evident from the fact that she had asked for it.
"How very thoughtless in me," said I, as I dwelt longer and longer on the subject.
"What's the matter?" inquired my husband, seeing me look serious.
"Nothing to be very much troubled at," I replied.
"Yet you are troubled."
"I am; and cannot help it. You will, perhaps, smile at me, but small causes sometimes produce much pain. Old Polly has been at work all day, scrubbing and cleaning. When night came, she asked for her wages, and I, instead of taking the trouble to get the money for her, sent her word that I hadn't the change. There was nothing less than a two-dollar bill in my purse. I didn't reflect that a poor old woman who has to go out to daily work must need her money as soon as it is earned. I am very sorry."
My husband did not reply for some time. My words appeared to have made considerable impression on his mind.
"Do you know where Polly lives?" he inquired at length.
"No; but I will ask the girl." And immediately ringing the bell, I made inquiries as to where Polly lived; but no one in the house knew.
"It cannot be helped now," said my husband, in a tone of regret. "But I would be more thoughtful in future. The poor always have need of their money. Their daily labor rarely does more than supply their daily needs. I can never forget a circumstance that occurred when I was a boy. My mother was left a widow when I was but nine years old — and she was poor. It was by the labor of her hands that she obtained shelter and food for herself and three little ones.
"Once, I remember the occurrence as if it had taken place yesterday, we were out of money and food. At breakfast-time our last morsel was eaten, and we went through the long day without a mouthful of bread. We all grew very hungry by night; but our mother encouraged us to be patient a little while longer, until she finished the garment she was making, when she would take that and some other work home to a lady who would pay her for the work. Then, she said, we should have a nice supper. At last the work was finished, and I went with my mother to help carry it home, for she was weak and sickly, and even a light burden fatigued her. The lady for whom she had made the garment was in good circumstances, and had no need unmet that money could supply. When we came into her presence, she took the work, and, after glancing at it carelessly, said,
"'It will do very well.'
"My mother lingered; perceiving which, the lady said, rather rudely,
"'You want your money, I suppose. How much does the work come to?'
"'Two dollars,' replied my mother. The lady took out her purse; and, after looking through a small parcel of bills, said,
"'I haven't the change this evening. Call over anytime, and you shall have it.'
"And without giving my mother time more earnestly to urge her request, turned from us and left the room. I never shall forget the night that followed. My mother's feelings were sensitive and independent. She could not make known her need. An hour after our return home, she sat weeping with her children around her, when a neighbor came in, and, learning our situation, supplied the present need."
This story did not make me feel any the more comfortable. Anxiously I waited, on the next morning, the arrival of Polly. As soon as she came I sent for her, and, handing her the money she had earned on the day before, said,
"I'm sorry I hadn't the change for you last night, Polly. I hope you didn't need it very badly."
Polly hesitated a little, and then replied,
"Well, ma'am, I did need it very much, or I wouldn't have asked for it. My poor daughter Hetty is sick, and I wanted to get her something nice to eat."
"I'm very sorry," said I, with sincere regret. "How is Hetty this morning?"
"She isn't so well, ma'am. And I feel very bad about her."
"Come up to me in half an hour, Polly," said I.
The old woman went downstairs. When she appeared again, according to my desire, I had a basket for her, in which were some juice, sugar, fruit, and various little matters that I thought her daughter would relish, and told her to go at once and take them to the sick girl. Her expressions of gratitude touched my feelings deeply. Never since have I omitted, under any pretense, to pay the poor their wages as soon as earned.