I Didn't Think of That!
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
Mr. Lawson, the tailor, was considered a very good member of society. He was industrious, paid what he owed, was a kind husband and father and a pleasant and considerate neighbor. He was, moreover, attached to the church, and, by his brethren in the faith, considered a pious and good man. And, to say the truth, Mr. Lawson would compare favorably with most people.
One day as Mr. Lawson stood at his cutting board, shears in hand, a poorly dressed young woman entered his shop, and approaching him, asked, with some embarrassment and timidity, if he had any work to give out.
"What can you do?" asked the tailor, looking rather coldly upon his visitor.
"I can make pantaloons and vests," replied the girl.
"Have you ever worked for the merchant tailors?"
"Yes, sir, I worked for Mr. Wright."
"Hasn't he anything for you to do?"
"No, not just now. He has regular hands who always get the preference."
"Did your work suit him?"
"He never found fault with it."
"Where do you live?"
"In Cherry Street," replied the young woman.
"At No. 37."
Mr. Lawson stood and mused for a short time.
"I have a vest here," he at length said, taking a small bundle from a shelf, "which I want by tomorrow evening at the latest. If you think you can make it very neatly, and have it done in time, you can take it."
"It shall be done in time," said the young woman, reaching out eagerly for the bundle.
"And remember, I shall expect it made well. If I like your work, I will give you more."
"I will try to please you," returned the girl, in a low voice.
"Tomorrow evening, recollect."
"Yes, sir. I will have it done."
The girl turned and went quickly away. As she walked along hurriedly, her slender form bent forward, and there was an unsteadiness in her steps, as if from weakness. She did not linger a moment, nor heed anything that was passing in the street.
A back room in the third story of an old house in Cherry Street was the home of the poor sewing girl. As she entered, she said, in a cheerful voice, to a person who was lying upon a bed which the room contained —
"I have got work, sister. It is a vest, and it must be done by tomorrow evening."
"Can you finish it in time?" inquired the invalid in a faint voice.
"Oh, yes, easily;" and as she spoke, she laid off her bonnet and shawl hurriedly and sat down to unroll the work she had obtained.
The vest proved to be of white Marseilles. As soon as the invalid sister saw this, she said —
"I'm afraid you won't be able to get that done in time, Ellen; it is very particular work. To stitch the edges well will alone take you many hours."
"I will sit up late, and get a fair start tonight, Mary. Then I can easily finish it in time. You know a vest is only a day's work for a good sewer, and I have nearly a day and a half before me."
"Yes; but you must remember, Ellen, that you are not very fast with your needle, and are, besides, far from being well. The work, too, is of the most particular kind, and cannot be hurried."
"Don't fear for me in the least, Mary. I will do all I have engaged to do," and the young woman, who had already arranged the cut-out garment, took a portion of it in her lap and commenced her task.
The two sisters, here introduced, were poor, in bad health, and without friends. Mary, the older, had declined rapidly within a few months, and become so much exhausted as to be obliged to keep her bed most of the time. The task of providing for the needs of both fell, consequently, upon Ellen. Increased exertion was more than her delicate frame could well endure. Daily were the vital energies of her system becoming more and more exhausted, a fact of which she was painfully conscious, and which she, with studious care, sought to conceal from Mary.
When, through loss of friends and change of circumstances, the two sisters were thrown entirely dependent upon their own exertions for a livelihood, they, with prudent forethought, immediately applied themselves to the learning of a trade in order to have the means of support. Confinement for twelve or fourteen hours a day, sitting in one position — a great change for them — could not long be endured without producing ill effects on frail young creatures at best. Mary, the older, failed first; and, at the time of which we are writing, had so far declined as to be little more than the shadow of anything earthly.
With her own unaided hands, Ellen found it impossible to earn enough for even their most simple need. Often Mary was without medicine, because there was no money left after food and fuel were bought. More and more earnestly did Ellen apply herself as want came in more varied shapes; but the returns of her labor became daily less and less adequate to meet the demands of nature.
The busy season had passed, and trade was dull. Ellen worked for only two merchant tailors, and with them she was considered an extra hand. When business fell off, as the season approached towards mid-summer, she was the first to receive notice that no more work could be given out for the present. With a disheartened feeling she returned home on receiving this news. Mary saw that something was wrong the moment she entered, and tenderly inquired the cause of her trouble. On learning what it was, she endeavored to comfort and assure her, but to little purpose.
As soon as Ellen could regain sufficient composure of mind, she went forth in search of work at other shops. To one of her peculiar, timid, and shrinking disposition, this was a severe trial. But there was no passing it by. Three days elapsed, during which every effort to get work proved unsuccessful. Even the clothing stores had nothing to give out to extra hands.
Reduced to their last penny, Ellen was almost in despair, when she called upon Mr. Lawson. The garment he gave her to make seemed to her like help sent from Heaven. Cheerfully did she work upon it until a late hour at night, and she was ready to resume her labor with the rising sun. But, as Mary had feared, the work did not progress altogether to her satisfaction. She had never made over one or two white Marseilles vests, and found that she was not so well skilled in the art of neat and accurate stitching as was required to give the garment a beautiful and workmanlike appearance. The stitches did not impress themselves along the edges with the accuracy that her eye told her was required, and she was troubled to find that, be as careful as she would, the pure white fabric grew soiled beneath her fingers. Mary, to whom she frequently submitted the work, tried to encourage her; but her eyes were not deceived.
It was after dark when Ellen finished the garment. She was weary and faint; for she had taken no food since morning, and had been bending over her work, with very little intermission, the whole day; and she had no hope of receiving anything more to do, for Mr. Lawson, she was sure, would not be pleased with the way the vest was made. But, need of everything, and particularly food for herself and sister, made the sum of seventy-five cents, to be received for the garment, a little treasure in her eyes; and she hurried off with the vest the moment it was finished.
"I will bring home a little tea, sister," she said, as she was about leaving; "I am sure a cup of tea will do you good; and I feel as if it would revive and strengthen me."
Mary looked at Ellen with a tender, pitying expression, while her large bright eyes shone glassy in the dim rays sent forth by a poor lamp; but she did not reply. She had a gnawing in her stomach, that made her feel faint, and a most earnest craving for nourishing and even stimulating food, the consequence of long abstinence as well as from the peculiarity of her disease. But she did not breathe a word of this to Ellen, who would, she knew, expend for her every cent of the money she was about to receive, if she was aware of the morbid appetite from which she was suffering.
"I will be back soon," added Ellen, as she retired from the room.
Mary sighed deeply when alone. She raised her eyes upwards for a few moments, then closing them and clasping her hands tightly together, she lay with her white face turned towards the light, more the image of death, than of life.
"Here it is past eight o'clock, and that vest is not yet in," said Mr. Lawson, in a fretful tone. "I had my doubts about the girl when I gave it to her. But she looked so poor, and seemed so earnest about work, that I was weak enough to entrust her with the garment. But I will take care, another time, how I let my feelings get the better of my judgment."
Before the individual had time to reply, Ellen came in with the vest, and laid it on the counter, at which the tailor was standing. She said nothing, neither did the tailor make any remark; but the latter unfolded the vest in the way that plainly showed him not to be in a very placid frame of mind.
"Goodness!" he ejaculated, after glancing hurriedly at the garment.
The girl shrunk back from the counter, and looked frightened.
"Well, this is a pretty job for one to bring in!" said the tailor, in an excited tone of voice. "A pretty job, indeed! It looks as if it had been dragged through a duck puddle. And such poor work!"
He tossed the garment from him in angry contempt, and walked away to the back part of the shop, leaving Ellen standing almost as still as a statue.
"That vest was to have been home tonight," he said, as he threw himself into a chair. "Of course, the customer will be disappointed and angry, and I shall lose him. But I don't care half so much for that, as I do for not being able to keep my word with him. It is too much!"
Ellen would have instantly retired, but the thought of her sick sister forced her to remain. She felt that she could not go until she had received the price of making the vest, for their money was all gone, and they had no food in the house. She had lingered for a little while, when the tailor called out to her, and said —
"You needn't stand there, Miss! thinking that I am going to pay you for ruining the job. It's bad enough to lose my material, and customer into the bargain. In justice you should be made to pay for the vest. But there is no hope for that. So take yourself away as quickly as possible, and never let me set eyes on you again!"
Ellen did not reply, but turned away slowly, and, with her eyes upon the floor and her form drooping, retired from the shop. After she had gone, Mr. Lawson returned to the front part of the store, and taking up the vest, brought it back to where an elderly man was sitting, and holding it towards him, said, by way of apology for the part he had taken in the little scene:
"That's a beautiful article for a gentleman to wear — isn't it?"
The man made no reply, and the tailor, after a pause, added —
"I refused to pay her, as a matter of principle. She knew she couldn't make the garment when she took it away. She will be more careful how she tries again to impose herself upon tailors as a good vest maker."
"Perhaps," said the old gentleman, in a mild way, "necessity drove her to you for work, and tempted her to undertake a job that required greater skill than she possessed. She certainly looked very poor."
"It was because she appeared so poor and miserable, that I was weak enough to place the vest in her hands," replied Mr. Lawson, in a less severe tone of voice. "But it was an imposition in her to ask for work that she did not know how to make."
"Brother Lawson," said the old gentleman, who was a fellow member of the church, "we should not blame, with too much severity, the person who, in extreme poverty, undertakes to perform work for which he does not possess the requisite skill. The fact that a young girl, like the one who was just here, is willing, in her extreme poverty, to labor, instead of sinking into vice and idleness, shows her to possess both virtue and integrity of character, and these we should be willing to encourage, even at some sacrifice. Work is slack now, as you are aware, and there is but little doubt that she had been to many places seeking employment before she came to you. It may be — and this is a very probable suggestion — that she did not come to you for work until she, and those who may be dependent upon the meager returns of her labor, were reduced to the utmost extremity. And, it may be, that even their next meal was dependent upon the receipt of the money that was expected to be paid for making the vest you hold in your hand. The expression of her face as she turned away, and her slow, lingering step and drooping form, as she left the shop, had in them a language which told me of all this, and even more."
A great change came over the tailor's countenance.
"I didn't think of that," fell in a low tone from his lips.
"I didn't suppose you did, brother Lawson," said his monitor. "We are all more apt to think of ourselves than of others. The girl promised you the vest this evening?"
"And, so far as that was concerned, performed her contract. Is the vest made so very badly?"
Mr. Lawson took up the garment, and examined it more carefully.
"Well, I can't say that the work is so very badly done. But it is dreadfully soiled and rumpled, and is not as neat a job as it should be, nor at all such as I wished it. The customer for whom it is intended is very particular, and I was anxious to please him."
"All this is very annoying, of course; but still we should always be ready to make some excuse for the short-comings of others. There is no telling under how many disadvantages the poor girl may have labored in making this vest. She may have had a sick mother, or a father, or sister to attend to, which constantly interfered with and interrupted her. She may have been compelled, from this cause, to work through a greater part of the night, in order to keep her promise to you. Under such circumstances, even you could hardly wonder if the garment were not made well, or if it came soiled from her hands. And even you could hardly find it in your heart to speak unkindly to the poor creature, much less turn her away angrily, and without the money she had toiled for so earnestly."
"I didn't think of that," was murmured in a low abstracted voice.
"Who could wonder," continued the old man, "if that unhappy girl, deprived of the reward of honest labor, and driven angrily away as you drove her just now, should in despair step aside into ruin, thus sacrificing herself, body and soul, in order to save from poverty and deprivation those she could not sustain by virtuous toil?"
"I didn't think of that," fell quick and in an agitated voice from the tailor's lips, as, dropping the garment he held in his hand, he hurried around his counter and left the shop.
Ellen was not tempted to vice, as the friend of Mr. Lawson had supposed; but there are hundreds who, under like circumstances, would have turned aside. From the shop of the tailor she went slowly homeward; at her heart was a feeling of utter despondency. She had struggled long, in weariness and pain, with her lot; but now she felt that the struggle was over. The hope of the hour had failed, and it seemed to her the last hope.
When Ellen entered the room where her sister lay, the sight of her expectant face (for the desire for nourishing, refreshing food had been stronger than usual with Mary, and her imagination had been dwelling upon the pleasant meal that was soon to be spread before her) made the task of communicating the cruel repulse she had received tenfold more painful. Without uttering a word, she threw herself upon the bed beside her sister, and, burying her face in a pillow, endeavored to smother the sobs that came up convulsively from her bosom. Mary asked no question. She understood the meaning of Ellen's agitation well; it told her that she had been disappointed in the expectation of receiving the money for her work.
Deep silence followed. Mary clasped her hands together and raised her eyes upward, while Ellen lay motionless with her face hidden where she had first concealed it. There was a knock at the door, but no voice bade the applicant for admission enter. It was repeated; but, if heard, it met no response. Then the latch was lifted, the door swung open, and the tailor stepped into the room. The sound of his feet aroused the passive sisters. The white face of Mary was to him, at first, a startling image of death; but her large bright eyes opened and turned upon him with an assurance that life still lingered in its earthly tenement.
"Ellen, Ellen," said the sick girl, faintly.
Ellen, too, had heard the sound of footsteps on the floor, and she now raised up slowly, and presented to Lawson her sad, tearful countenance.
"I was wrong to speak to you as I did," said the tailor without preface, advancing towards the bed and holding out to Ellen the money she had earned. "There is the price of the vest; it is better made than I at first thought it was. Tomorrow I will send you more work. Try and cheer up. Are you so very poor?"
The last two sentences were uttered in a voice of encouragement and sympathy. Ellen looked her thankfulness, but did not venture a reply. Her heart was too full to trust her lips with utterance.
Feeling that his presence, under all circumstances, could not but be embarrassing, Mr. Lawson, after taking two or three dollars from his pocket and placing them on the table with the remark — "Take this in advance for work," retired and left the poor sisters in a different frame of mind from what they were in when he entered. Shortly after they received a basket, in which was a supply of nourishing food. Though no one's name was sent with it, they were not in doubt as to whence it came.
Mr. Lawson was not an unfeeling man, but, like too many others in the world, he did not always "think before speaking".