My Washerwoman

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1859

We were sitting at tea one evening — my husband Mr. Smith, my sister and her husband, Mr. John Jones, and myself. In the midst of a pleasant conversation, Bridget my servant, looked into the dining-room.

"What is wanted?" said I.

"Mary Green is downstairs."

"Oh! the washerwoman."

"Yes ma'am."

"Well, what does she want?"

I knew what she wanted well enough. She had come for two dollars that I owed her. I felt annoyed. "Why?" the reader asks. "Obligations of this kind should always be met promptly and cheerfully."

True; and I am of those who never grudge the humble poor the reward of their labor. But, it so happened that I had received a pretty liberal supply of money from my husband on this very day, all of which I had spent in shopping. Some of my purchases could not be classed exactly under the head, "Articles of Domestic Economy," and I was, already, in rather a repentant mood — the warmth of admiration at the sight of sundry ornamental trifles having subsided almost as soon as I found myself their owner. To my question, Bridget very promptly answered,

"She's come for her money."

When a woman feels annoyed, she is rarely able to repress its exhibition. Men are cooler, and have a quicker self control. They make better hypocrites.

"She's very prompt," I remarked, a little fretfully, as I took out my purse. Now I did not possess twenty cents, and I knew it; still, I fingered among its compartments as if in search of the little gold dollars that were not there.

"Haven't you the change?" inquired my husband, at the same time drawing forth his wallet, through the meshes of which the gold and silver coin glittered in the gas light.

"No dear," I replied, feeling instant relief.

"Help yourself;" said he, as he tossed the wallet to my side of the table. I was not long in accepting the invitation you may be sure.

"Don't think," said I, after Bridget had retired, "that I am one of those who grudge the toiling poor the meager wages they earn. I presume I looked, as I spoke, a little annoyed. The fact is, to tell the honest truth, I have not a dollar in my purse; this with the not very pleasant consciousness of having spent several dollars today rather foolishly, fretted me, when the just demand of the washerwoman came."

"I will exonerate my wife from any suspicion of grinding the faces of the poor," Mr. Smith spoke promptly and with some earnestness of manner. After a slight pause, he continued,

"Some people have a singular reluctance to part with money. If waited on for a bill, they say, almost involuntarily, "Call tomorrow," even though their pockets are far from being empty.

I once fell into this bad habit myself; but a little incident, which I will relate, cured me. Not many years after I had attained my majority, a poor widow, named Blake, did my washing and ironing. She was the mother of two or three little children, whose sole dependence for food and clothing was on the labor of her hands.

Punctually, every Thursday morning, Mrs. Blake appeared with my clothes, "as white as the driven snow;" but not always, as punctually, did I pay the pittance she had earned by hard labor.

"Mrs. Blake is downstairs," said a servant, tapping at my room-door one morning, while I was in the act of dressing myself.

"Oh, very well," I replied. "Tell her to leave my clothes. I will get them when I come down."

The thought of paying the seventy-five cents, her due, crossed my mind. But I said to myself—"It's but a small matter, and she will do as well when she comes again."

There was in this, a certain reluctance to part with money. My funds were low, and I might need what change I had during the day. And so it proved. As I went to the office in which I was engaged, some small article of ornament caught my eye in a shop window.

"Beautiful!" said I, as I stood looking at it. Admiration quickly changed into the desire for possession; and so I stepped in to ask the price. It was just two dollars.

"Cheap enough," thought I. And this very cheapness was a further temptation.

So I turned out the contents of my pockets, counted them over, and found the amount to be two dollars and a quarter.

"I'll take it," said I, laying the money on the shopkeeper's counter.

"I'd better have paid Mrs. Blake." This thought crossed my mind, an hour afterwards, by which time the little ornament had lost its power of pleasing. "So much would at least have been saved."

I was leaving the table, after tea, on the evening that followed, when the waiter said to me,

"Mrs. Blake is at the door, and wishes to see you."

I felt a little worried at hearing this; for I had no change in my pockets, and the poor washerwoman had, of course, come for her money.

"She's in a great hurry," I muttered to myself, as I descended to the door.

"You'll have to wait until you bring home my clothes next week, Mrs. Blake. I haven't any change, this evening."

The expression of the poor woman's face, as she turned slowly away, without speaking, rather softened my feelings.

"I'm sorry," said I, "but it can't be helped now. I wish you had said this morning, that you needed money. I could have paid you then."

She paused, and turned partly towards me, as I said this. Then she moved off, with something so sad in her manner, that I was touched sensibly.

"I ought to have paid her this morning, when I had the change about me. And I wish I had done so. Why didn't she ask for her money, if she needed it so badly?"

I felt, of course, rather ill at ease. A little while afterwards I met the lady with whom I was boarding.

"Do you know anything about this Mrs. Blake, who washes for me?" I inquired.

"Not much; except that she is very poor, and has three children to feed and clothe. And what is worst of all, she is in bad health. She told me, this morning, that one of her little ones was very sick."

I was smitten with a feeling of self-condemnation, and soon after left the room. It was too late to remedy the evil, for I had only a sixpence in my pocket; and, moreover, did not know where to find Mrs. Blake.

Having purposed to make a call upon some young ladies that evening, I now went up into my room to dress. Upon my bed lay the spotless linen brought home by Mrs. Blake that morning. The sight of it rebuked me; and I had to conquer, with some force, an instinctive reluctance, before I could compel myself to put on a clean shirt, and snow-white vest, too recently from the hand of my unpaid washerwoman.

One of the young ladies upon whom I called was more to me than a mere pleasant acquaintance. My heart had, in fact, been warming towards her for some time; and I was particularly anxious to find favor in her eyes. On this evening she was lovelier and more attractive than ever, and new bonds of affection entwined themselves around my heart.

Judge, then, of the effect produced upon me by the entrance of her mother—at the very moment when my heart was all a-glow with love, who said, as she came in—

"Oh, dear! This is a strange world!"

"What new feature have you discovered now, mother?" asked one of her daughters, smiling.

"No new one, child; but an old one that looks more repulsive than ever," was replied. "Poor Mrs. Blake came to see me just now, in great trouble."

"What about, mother?" All the young ladies at once manifested unusual interest.

Tell-tale blushes came instantly to my countenance, upon which the eyes of the mother turned themselves, as I felt, with a severe scrutiny.

"The old story, in cases like hers," was answered. "Can't get her money when earned, although for daily bread she is dependent on her daily labor. With no food in the house, or money to buy medicine for her sick child, she was compelled to seek me tonight, and to humble her spirit, which is an independent one, so low as to ask bread for her little ones, and the loan of a pittance with which to get what the doctor has ordered her feeble sufferer at home."

"Oh, what a shame!" fell from the lips of Ellen, the one in whom my heart felt more than a passing interest; and she looked at me earnestly as she spoke.

"She fully expected," said the mother, "to get a trifle that was due her from a young man who boards with Mrs. Corwin; and she went to see him this evening. But he put her off with some excuse. How strange that anyone should be so thoughtless as to withhold from the poor, their hard-earned pittance! It is but a small sum at best, that the toiling seamstress or washerwoman can gain by her wearying labor. That, at least, should be promptly paid. To withhold it an hour is to do, in many cases, a great wrong."

For some minutes after this was said, there ensued a dead silence. I felt that the thoughts of all were turned upon me as the one who had withheld from poor Mrs. Blake the trifling sum due her for washing. What my feelings were, it is impossible for me to describe; and difficult for anyone, never himself placed in so unpleasant a position, to imagine.

My relief was great when the conversation flowed on again, and in another channel; for I then perceived that suspicion did not rest upon me. You may be sure that Mrs. Blake had her money before ten o'clock on the next day, and that I never again fell into the error of neglecting, for a single week, my poor washerwoman.

"Such a confession from you, my husband, of all men!" said I, feeling a little uncomfortable, that he should have told this story of himself.

"We are none of us perfect," he answered, "He is best, who, conscious of natural defects and evils, strives against, and overcomes them."