Was it Murder, or Suicide?
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1869
"Who is that young lady?"
A slender girl, just above the medium height, stood a moment at the parlor door, and then withdrew. Her complexion was fair, but colorless; her eyes so dark, that you were in doubt, on the first glance, whether they were brown or blue. Away from her forehead and temples, the chestnut hair was pulled far back, giving to her finely-cut and regular features an intellectual cast. Her motions were easy, yet with an air of reserve and dignity.
The question was asked by a visitor who had called a little while before.
"My seamstress," answered Mrs. Wykoff.
"Oh!" The manner of her visitor changed. How the whole character of the woman was expressed in the tone with which she made that simple ejaculation! Only a seamstress! "Oh! I thought it some relative or friend of the family."
"She is a peculiar-looking girl," said Mrs. Lowe, the visitor.
"Do you think so? In what respect?"
"If she were in a different sphere of life, I would say that she had the style of a lady."
"She's a true, good girl," answered Mrs. Wykoff, "and I feel much interested in her. A few years ago her father was in excellent circumstances."
"Ah!" With a slight manifestation of interest.
"Yes, and she's been well-educated."
"And has ridden in her own carriage, no doubt. It's the story of two-thirds of your sewing girls." Mrs. Lowe laughed in an unsympathetic, contemptuous way.
"I happen to know that it is true in Mary Carson's case," said Mrs. Wykoff.
"Mary Carson. Is that her name?"
"Passing from her antecedents, as the phrase now is, which are neither here nor there — " said Mrs. Lowe, with a coldness, or rather coarseness of manner, that shocked the higher tone of Mrs. Wykoff's feelings, "what is she as a seamstress? Can she fit children? — little girls like my Angela and Grace?"
"I have never been so well suited in my life," replied Mrs. Wykoff. "Let me show you the splendid dress for Anna which she finished yesterday."
Mrs. Wykoff left the room, and returned in a few minutes with a child's dress in her hand. The ladies examined the work on this dress with practiced eyes, and agreed that it was of unusual excellence.
"And she fits as well as she sews?" said Mrs. Lowe.
"Yes. Nothing could fit more beautifully than the dresses she has made for my children."
"How soon will you be done with her?"
"She will be through with my work in a day or two."
"Is she engaged anywhere else?"
"I will ask her, if you desire."
"Do so, if you please."
"Would you like to see her?"
"It's of no consequence. Say that I will engage her for a couple of weeks. What are her terms?"
"Seventy-five cents a day."
"So much? I've never paid over sixty-two-and-a-half."
"She's worth the difference. I'd rather pay her a dollar a day, than give some women I've had, fifty cents. She works faithfully in all things."
"I'll take your word for that, Mrs. Wykoff. Please ask her if she can come to me next week; and if so, on what day?"
Mrs. Wykoff left the room.
"Will Monday suit you?" she asked, on returning.
"Yes, that will do."
"Miss Carson says that she will be at your service on Monday."
"Very well. Tell her to come bright and early on that day. I shall be all ready for her."
"Hadn't you better see her, while you are here?" asked Mrs. Wykoff.
"Oh, no. Not at all necessary. It will be time enough on Monday. Your endorsement of her is all-sufficient."
Mrs. Lowe, who had only been making a formal call, now arose, and with a courteous good day, retired. From the parlor, Mrs. Wykoff returned to the room occupied by Miss Carson.
"You look pale this morning, Mary," said the lady as she came in, "I'm afraid you are not as well as usual."
The seamstress lifted herself in a tired way, and took a long breath, at the same time holding one hand tightly against her left side. Her eyes looked very bright, as they rested, with a sober expression, on Mrs. Wykoff. But she did not reply.
"Have you severe pain there, Mary?" The voice was very kind; almost motherly.
"Not very severe. But it aches in a dull way."
"Hadn't you better lie down for a little while?"
"Oh, no — thank you, Mrs. Wykoff." And a smile flitted over the girl's sweet, sad face; a smile that was meant to say — "How absurd to think of such a thing!" She was there to work, not to be treated as an invalid. Stooping over the garment, she went on with her sewing. Mrs. Wykoff looked at her very earnestly, and saw that her lips were growing colorless; that she moved them in a nervous way, and swallowed every now and then.
"Come, child," she said, in a firm tone, as she took Miss Carson by the arm. "Put aside your work, and lie down on that sofa. You are sick."
She did not resist, but only said —
"Not sick, ma'am — only a little faint."
As her head went heavily down upon the pillow, Mrs. Wykoff saw a sparkle of tears along the line of her closely shut eyelids.
"Now don't stir from there until I come back," said the kind lady, and left the room. In a little while she returned, with a small platter in her hand, containing a goblet of wine sangaree and a biscuit.
"Take this, Mary. It will do you good."
The eyes which had not been unclosed since Mrs. Wykoff went out, were all wet as Mary Carson opened them.
"Oh, you are so kind!" There was gratitude in her voice. Rising, she took the wine, and drank of it like one athirst. Then taking it from her lips, she sat, as if noting her sensations.
"It seems to put life into me," she said, with a pulse of cheerfulness in her tones.
"Now eat this biscuit," and Mrs. Wykoff held the platter near.
The wine drank and the biscuit eaten, a complete change in Miss Carson was visible. The whiteness around her mouth gave place to a ruddier tint; her face no longer wore an exhausted air; the glassy luster of her eyes was gone.
"I feel like myself again," she said, as she left the sofa, and resumed her sewing chair.
"How is your side now?" asked Mrs. Wykoff.
"Easier. I scarcely perceive the pain."
"Hadn't you better lie still a while longer?"
"No, ma'am. I am all right now. A weak spell came over me. I didn't sleep much last night, and that left me exhausted this morning, and without any appetite."
"What kept you awake?"
"This dull pain in my side for a part of the time. Then I coughed a good deal; and then I became wakeful and nervous."
"Does this often occur, Mary?"
"Well — yes, ma'am — pretty often of late."
"Two or three times a week."
"Can you trace it to any cause?"
"To a cold?"
"More that, than anything else, I think."
"And you didn't eat any breakfast this morning?"
"I drank a cup of coffee."
"But took no solid food?"
"I couldn't have swallowed it, ma'am."
"And it's now twelve o'clock," said Mrs. Wykoff; drawing out her watch. "Mary! Mary! This will not do. I don't wonder you were faint just now."
Miss Carson bent to her work and made no answer. Mrs. Wykoff sat regarding her for some time with a look of human interest, and then went out.
A little before two o'clock there was a tap at the door, and the waiter came in, bearing a tray. There was a nicely cooked pork-chop, toast, and some tea, with fruit and a custard.
"Mrs. Wykoff said, when she went out, that dinner would be late today, and that you were not well, and mustn't be kept waiting," remarked the servant, as he drew a small table towards the center of the room, and covered it with a white napkin.
He came just in time. The stimulating effect of the wine had subsided, and Miss Carson was beginning to grow faint again, for lack of food.
It was after three o'clock when Mrs. Wykoff came home, and half past three before the regular dinner for the family was served. She looked in, a moment, upon the seamstress, saying as she did so —
"You've had your dinner, Mary?"
"Oh yes, ma'am, and I'm much obliged," answered Miss Carson, a bright smile playing over her face. The timely meal had put new life into her.
"I knew you couldn't wait until we were ready," said the kind-hearted, thoughtful woman, "and so told Ellen to cook you a chop, and make you a cup of tea. Did you have enough?"
"Oh yes, ma'am. More than enough."
"You feel better than you did this morning?"
"A great deal better, I'm like another person."
"You must never go without food so long again, Mary. It is little better than suicide for one in your state of health."
Mrs. Wykoff retired, and the seamstress went on with her work.
At the usual hour, Mary Carson appeared on the next morning. Living at some distance from Mrs. Wykoff's, she did not come until after breakfast. The excellent lady had thought over the incident of the day before, and was satisfied that, from lack of nutritious food at the right time, Mary's vital forces were steadily wasting away, and that she would, in a very little while, destroy herself.
"I will talk with her seriously about this matter," she said. "A word of admonition may save her."
"You look a great deal better this morning," she remarked, as she entered the room where Mary was sewing.
"I haven't felt better for a long time," was the cheerful answer.
"Did you sleep well last night?"
"Not of any consequence, ma'am."
"How was the pain in your side?"
"It troubled me a little when I first went to bed, but soon passed off."
"Did you feel the old exhaustion on waking?"
"I always feel weak in the morning; but it was nothing, this morning, to what it has been."
"How was your appetite?"
"Better. I ate an egg and a piece of toast, and they tasted good. Usually my stomach loathes food in the morning."
"Has this been the case long?"
"For a long time, ma'am."
Mrs. Wykoff mused for a little while, and then asked —
"How do you account for the difference this morning?"
Miss Carson's pale face became slightly flushed, and her eyes fell away from the questioning gaze of Mrs. Wykoff.
"There is a cause for it, and it is of importance that you should know the cause. Has it been suggested to your mind?"
"Yes, ma'am. To me the cause is quite apparent."
They looked at each other for a few moments in silence.
"My interest in you prompts these questions, Mary," said Mrs. Wykoff. "Speak to me freely, if you will, as to a friend. What made the difference?"
"I think the difference is mainly due to your kindness yesterday. To the glass of wine and biscuit when I was faint, and to the early and good dinner, when exhausted nature was crying for food. I believe, Mrs. Wykoff" — and Mary's eyes glistened — "that if you had not thought of me when you did, I would not be here today."
"Are you serious, Mary?"
"I am, indeed, ma'am. I would have got over my faint spell in the morning, even without the wine and biscuit, and worked on until dinner-time; but I wouldn't have been able to eat anything. It almost always happens, when I go so long without food, that my appetite fails altogether, and by the time night comes, I sink down in an exhausted state, from which nature finds it hard to rally. It has been so a number of times. The week before I came here, I was sewing for a lady, and worked from eight o'clock in the morning until four in the afternoon, without food passing my lips. As I had been unable to eat anything at breakfast-time, I grew very faint, and when called to dinner, was unable to swallow a mouthful. When I got home in the evening I was feverish and exhausted, and coughed nearly all night. It was three or four days before I was well enough to go out again."
"Has this happened, in any instance, while you were sewing for me?" asked Mrs. Wykoff.
Miss Carson dropped her face, and turned it partly aside; her manner was slightly disturbed.
"Don't hesitate about answering my question, Mary. If it has happened, say so. I am not always as thoughtful as I should be."
"It happened once."
"Oh! I remember that you were not able to come for two days. Now, tell me, Mary, without reservation, exactly how it was."
"I never blamed you for a moment, Mrs. Wykoff; and I'd rather not say anything about it. If I'd been as well as usual on that day, it wouldn't have happened."
"You'd passed a sleepless night?" said Mrs. Wykoff.
"The consequence of fatigue and exhaustion?"
"Perhaps that was the reason."
"And couldn't eat any breakfast?"
"I drank a cup of coffee."
"Very well. After that you came here to work. Now, tell me exactly what occurred, and how you felt all day. Don't keep back anything on account of my feelings. I want the exact truth. It will be of use to me, and to others also, I think."
Thus urged, Miss Carson replied —
"I'll tell you just as it was. I came later than usual. The walk is long, and I felt so weak, that I couldn't hurry. I thought you looked a little serious when I came in, and concluded that it was in consequence of my being late. The air and walk gave me an appetite, and if I had taken some food then, it would have done me good. I thought, as I stood at the door, waiting to be let in, that I would ask for a cracker or a piece of bread and butter; but, when I met you, and saw how sober you looked, my heart failed me."
"Why, Mary!" said Mrs. Wykoff. "How wrong it was in you!"
"Maybe it was, ma'am; but I couldn't help it. I'm foolish sometimes; and it's hard for us to be anything else than what we are, as my Aunt Hannah used to say. Well, I sat down to my work with the dull pain in my side, and the sick feeling that always comes at such times, and worked on hour after hour. You looked in once or twice during the morning to see how I was getting on, and to ask about the trimming for a dress I was making. Then you went out shopping, and did not get home until half past two o'clock. For two hours there had been a gnawing at my stomach, and I was faint for something to eat. Twice I got up to ring the bell, and ask for a lunch; but, I felt awkward about taking the liberty. When, at three o'clock, I was called to dinner, no appetite remained. I put food into my mouth, but it had no sweetness, and the little I forced myself to swallow, lay undigested. You were very much occupied, and did not notice me particularly. I dragged on, as best I could, through the afternoon, feeling, sometimes, as if I would drop from my chair. You had tea later than usual. It was nearly seven o'clock when I put up my work and went down. You said something in a kind, but absent tone, about my looking pale, and asked if I would have a second cup of tea. I believe I forced myself to eat a slice of bread half as large as my hand. I thought I would never reach home that night, for the weakness that came upon me. I got to bed as soon as possible, but was too tired to sleep until after twelve o'clock, when a coughing spell seized me, which brought on the pain in my side. It was near daylight when I dropped off; and then I slept so heavily for two hours, that I was all wet with perspiration when I awoke. On trying to rise, my head swam so, that I had to lie down again, and it was late in the day before I could even sit up in bed. Towards evening, I was able to drink a cup of tea and eat a small piece of toast, and then I felt wonderfully better. I slept well that night, and was still better in the morning, but did not think it safe to venture out upon a day's work; so I rested and got all the strength I could. On the third day, I was as well as ever again."
Mrs. Wykoff drew a long sigh as Miss Carson stopped speaking and bent down over her sewing. For some time, she remained without speaking.
"Life is too precious a thing to be wasted in this way," said the lady, at length, speaking partly to herself, and partly to the seamstress. "We are too thoughtless, I must own; but you are not blameless. It is scarcely possible for us to understand just how the case stands with one in your position, and duty to yourself demands that you should make it known. There is not one lady in ten, I am sure, who would not be pleased rather than annoyed, to have you do so."
Miss Carson did not answer.
"Do you doubt?" asked Mrs. Wykoff.
"For one of my disposition," was replied, "the life of a seamstress does not take off the keen edge of a natural reserve — or, to speak more correctly sensitiveness. I dislike to break in upon another's household arrangements, or in any way to obtrude myself. My rule is, to adapt myself, as best I can, to the family order, and so not disturb anything by my presence."
"Even though your life is in jeopardy?" said Mrs. Wykoff.
"Oh! it's not so bad as that."
"But it is, Mary! Let me ask a few more questions. I am growing interested in the subject, as reaching beyond you personally. How many families do you work for?"
After thinking for a little while, and naming quite a number of ladies, she replied —
"Not less than twenty."
"And to many of these, you go for only a day or two at a time?"
"Passing from family to family, and adapting yourself to their various home arrangements?"
"Getting your dinner at one o'clock today, and at three or four tomorrow?"
Miss Carson nodded assent.
"Taking it now, warm and well served, with the family; and on the next occasion, cold and tasteless by yourself, after the family has dined."
Another assenting inclination of the head.
"One day set to work in an orderly, well ventilated room, and on the next cooped up with children in a small apartment, the air of which is little less than poison to your weak lungs."
"These differences must always occur, Mrs. Wykoff," replied Miss Carson, in a quiet uncomplaining voice. "How could it be otherwise? No wife is going to alter her family arrangements for the accommodation of a sewing-girl. The seamstress must adapt herself to them, and do it as gracefully as possible."
"Even at the risk of her life?"
"She will find it easier to decline working in families where the order of things bears too heavily upon her, than to attempt any change. I have been obliged to do this in one or two instances."
"There is something wrong here, Mary," said Mrs. Wykoff, with increasing sobriety of manner. "Something very wrong, and as I look it steadily in the face, I feel both surprise and trouble; for, after what you have just said, I do not see clearly how it is to be remedied. One thing is certain, if you, as a class, accept, without remonstrance, the hurt you suffer — there will be no change. People are indifferent and thoughtless; or worse, too selfish to have any regard for others — especially if they stand, socially, on a plane below them."
"We cannot apply the remedy," answered Miss Carson.
"I am not so sure of that."
"Just look at it for a moment, Mrs. Wykoff. It is admitted, that, for the preservation of health — orderly habits are necessary; and that food should be taken at regular intervals. Suppose that, at home, my habit is to eat breakfast at seven, dinner at one, and supper at six. Today, such is the order of my meals; but tomorrow, I leave home at half past six, and sit down, on an empty stomach to sew until eight, before I am called to breakfast. After that, I work until two o'clock, when I get my dinner; and at seven drink tea. On the day after that, maybe, on my arrival at another house where a day's cutting and fitting is needed, I find the breakfast awaiting me at seven; this suits very well — but not another mouthful of food passes my lips until after three o'clock, and maybe, then, I have such an inward trembling and exhaustion, that I cannot eat. On the day following, the order is again changed. So it goes on. The difference in food, too, is often as great. At some houses, everything is of good quality, well cooked, and in consequence, of easy digestion; while at others, sour or heavy bread, greasy cooking, and like kitchen abominations, if I must so call them — disorder, instead of giving sustenance to a frail body like mine. The seamstress who would attempt a change of these things for her own special benefit, would soon find herself in hot water. Think a moment. Suppose, in going into a family for one or two days, or a week, I should begin by a request to have my meals served at certain hours — seven, one and six, for instance — how would it be received in eight out of ten families?"
"Something would depend," said Mrs. Wykoff, "on the way in which it was done. If there was a formal stipulation, or a cold demand, I do not think the response would be a favorable one. But, I am satisfied that, in your case, with the signs of poor health on your countenance, the mild request to be considered as far as practicable, would, in almost every instance, receive a kind return."
"Perhaps so. But, it would make trouble — if no where else, with servants, who never like to do anything out of the common order. I have been living long enough to understand how such things operate; and generally think it wisest to take what comes, and make the best of it."
"Say, rather, the worst of it, Mary. To my thinking, you are making the worst of it."
But, Mrs. Wykoff did not inspire her seamstress with any purpose to act in the line of her suggestions. Her organization was of too sensitive a character to accept the shocks and repulses that she knew would attend, in some quarters, any such intrusion of her individual needs. Even with all the risks upon her, she preferred to suffer whatever might come, rather than ask for consideration. During the two or three days that she remained with Mrs. Wykoff, that excellent lady watched her, and ministered to her actual needs, with all the tender solicitude of a mother; and when she left, tried to impress upon her mind the duty of asking, wherever she might be, for such consideration as her health required.
The Monday morning on which Mary Carson was to appear "bright and early" at the dwelling of Mrs. Lowe, came round, but it was far from being a bright morning. An easterly storm had set in during the night; the rain was falling fast, and the wind driving gustily. A chilliness crept through the frame of Miss Carson as she arose from her bed, soon after the dull light began to creep in drearily through the half closed shutters of her room. The air, even within her chamber, felt cold, damp, and penetrating. From her window, a steeple clock was visible. She glanced at the face, and saw that it was nearly seven.
"So late as that!" she exclaimed, in a tone of surprise, and commenced dressing herself in a hurried, nervous way. By the time she was ready to leave her room, she was exhausted by her own excited haste.
"Mary," said a kind voice, calling to her as she was moving downstairs, "you are not going out this morning."
"Oh, yes, ma'am," she answered, in a cheerful voice. "I have an engagement for today."
"But the storm is too severe. It's raining and blowing dreadfully. Wait an hour or two until it holds up a little."
"Oh dear, no, Mrs. Grant! I can't stop for a trifle of rain."
"It's no trifle of rain this morning, let me tell you, Mary. You'll get drenched to the skin. Now don't go out, child!"
"I must indeed, Mrs. Grant. The lady expects me, and I cannot disappoint her." And Miss Carson kept on going downstairs.
"But you are not going without something on your stomach, Mary. Wait just for a few minutes until I can get you a cup of tea. The water is boiling."
Mary did not wait. It was already past the time when she was expected at Mrs. Lowe's; and besides feeling a little uncomfortable on that account, she had a slight sense of nausea, with its attendant aversion to food. So, breaking away from Mrs. Grant's concerned importunities, she went forth into the cold driving storm. It so happened, that she had to go for nearly the entire distance of six or seven blocks, almost in the teeth of the wind, which blew a gale, drenching her clothes in spite of all efforts to protect herself by means of an umbrella. Her feet and ankles were wet by the time she reached Mrs. Lowe's, and the lower parts of her dress and under-clothing saturated to a depth of ten or twelve inches.
"I expected you half an hour ago!" said the lady, in a coldly polite way, as Miss Carson entered her presence.
"The morning was dark and I overslept," was the only reply.
Mrs. Lowe did not remark upon the condition of Mary's clothing and feet. That was a matter of no concern to her. It was a seamstress, not a human being, that was before her — a mere machine, not thing of feeling. So she conducted her to a room in the third story, fronting east, against the cloudy and misty windows of which the wind and rain were driving. There was a damp, chilly feeling in the air of this room. Mrs. Lowe had a knit shawl drawn around her shoulders; but Mary, after removing her bonnet and cloak, had no external protection for her chest beyond her thin dress. Her feet and hands felt very cold, and she had that low shuddering, experienced when one is inwardly chilled.
Mrs. Lowe was ready for her seamstress. There were the materials to make half a dozen dresses for Angela and Grace, and one of the little Misses was called immediately, and the work of selecting and cutting a body pattern commenced, Mrs. Lowe herself superintending the operation, and embarrassing Mary at the start with her many suggestions. Nearly an hour had been spent in this way, when the breakfast bell rang. It was after eight o'clock. Without saying anything to Mary, Mrs. Lowe and the child they had been fitting, went downstairs. This hour had been one of nervous excitement to Mary Carson. Her cheeks were hot — burning as if a fire shone upon them — but her cold hands, and wet, colder feet, sent the blood in every returning circle, robbed of warmth to the disturbed heart.
It was past nine o'clock when a servant called Mary to breakfast. As she arose from her chair, she felt a sharp stitch in her left side; so sharp, that she caught her breath in half inspirations, two or three times, before venturing on a full inflation of the lungs. She was, at the same time, conscious of an uncomfortable tightness across the chest. The nausea, and loathing of food, which had given place soon after her arrival at Mrs. Lowe's to a natural craving of the stomach for food — had returned again, and she felt, as she went downstairs, that unless something to tempt the appetite were set before her, she could not take a mouthful. There was nothing to tempt the appetite. The table at which the family had eaten remained just as they had left it — soiled plates and scraps of broken bread and meat; partly emptied cups and saucers; dirty knives and forks, spread about in confusion. Amid all this, a clean plate had been set for the seamstress; and Mrs. Lowe awaited her, cold and dignified, at the head of the table.
"Coffee or tea, Miss Carson?"
It was a lukewarm decoction of used coffee grounds, flavored with tin, and sweetened to nauseousness. Mary took a mouthful and swallowed it — put the cup again to her lips; but they resolutely refused to unclose and admit another drop. So she sat the cup down.
"Help yourself to some of the meat." And Mrs. Lowe pushed the dish, which, nearly three-quarters of an hour before had come upon the table bearing a smoking sirloin, across to the seamstress. Now, lying beside the bone, and cemented to the dish by a stratum of chilled gravy, was the fat, stringy end of the steak. The sight of it was enough for Miss Carson; and she declined the offered delicacy.
"There's bread." She took a slice from a fresh baker's loaf; and spread it with some oily-looking butter that remained on one of the butter plates. It was slightly sour. By forcing herself, she swallowed two or three mouthfuls. But the remonstrating palate would accept no more.
"Isn't the coffee good?" asked Mrs. Lowe, with a sharp quality in her voice, seeing that Miss Carson did not venture upon a second mouthful.
"I have very little appetite this morning," was answered, with an effort to smile and look cheerful.
"Perhaps you'd rather have tea. Shall I give you a cup?" And Mrs. Lowe laid her hand on the teapot.
"You may, if you please." Mary felt an inward weakness that she knew was occasioned by lack of food, and so accepted the offer of tea, in the hope that it might prove more palatable than the coffee. It had the merit of being hot, and not of decidedly offensive flavor; but it was little more in strength than sweetened water, whitened with milk. She drank off the cup, and then left the table, going, with her still wet feet and skirts to the sewing-room.
"Rather a dainty young lady," she heard Mrs. Lowe remark to the waiter, as she left the room.
The stitch in Mary's side caught her again, as she went upstairs, and almost took her breath away; and it was some time after she resumed her work, before she could bear her body up straight on the left side.
In her damp feet and skirts, on a chilly and rainy October day, Mary Carson sat working until nearly three o'clock, without rest or refreshment of any kind; and when at last called to dinner, the disordered condition of the table, and the cold, unpalatable food set before her, extinguished, instead of stimulating her sickly appetite. She made a pretense of eating, to avoid attracting attention, and then returned to the sewing-room, the air of which, as she re-entered, seemed colder than that of the hall and dining-room.
The stitch in her side was not so bad during the afternoon; but the dull pain was heavier, and accompanied by a sickening sensation. Still, she worked on, cutting, fitting and sewing with a patience and industry, that, considering her actual condition, was most surprising. Mrs. Lowe was in and out of the room frequently, overlooking the work, and marking its progress. Beyond the producing power of her seamstress — she had no thought of that individual. It did not come within the range of her questionings whether she were well or ill — weak or strong — exhausted by prolonged labor, or in the full possession of bodily vigor. To her, she was simply an agent through which a certain service was obtained; and beyond that service — she was nothing. The extent of her consideration was limited by the progressive creation of dresses for her children. As that went on, her thought dwelt with Miss Carson; but penetrated no deeper. She might be human; might have an individual life full of needs, yearnings, and tender sensibilities; might be conscious of bodily or mental suffering — but, if so, it was in a region so remote from that in which Mrs. Lowe dwelt, that no news thereof reached her.
At six o'clock, Mary put up her work, and, taking her bonnet and shawl, went downstairs, intending to return home.
"You're not going?" said Mrs. Lowe, meeting her on the way. She spoke in some surprise.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm not very well, and wish to get home."
"What time is it?" Mrs. Lowe drew out her watch. "Only six o'clock. I think you're going rather early. It was late when you came this morning, you know."
"Excuse me, if you please," said Miss Carson, as she moved on. "I am not very well tonight. Tomorrow I will make it up."
Mrs. Lowe muttered something that was not heard by the seamstress, who kept on going downstairs, and left the house.
The rain was still falling and the wind blowing. Mary's feet were quite wet again by the time she reached home.
"How are you, child?" asked Mrs. Grant, in kind concern, as Mary came in.
"Not very well," was answered.
"Oh! I'm sorry! Have you taken cold?"
"I'm afraid that I have."
"I said it was wrong in you to go out this morning. Did you get very wet?"
Mrs. Grant looked down at Mary's feet. "Are they damp?"
"Come right into the sitting-room. I've had a fire made up on purpose for you." And the considerate Mrs. Grant hurried Mary into the small back room, and taking off her cloak and bonnet, placed her in a chair before the fire. Then, as she drew off one of her shoes, and clasped the foot in her hand, she exclaimed —
"Soaking wet!" Then added, after removing, with kind officiousness, the other shoe — "Hold both feet to the fire, while I run up and get you a pair of dry stockings. Don't take off the wet ones until I come back."
In a few minutes Mrs. Grant returned with the dry stockings and a towel. She bared one of the damp feet, and dried and heated it thoroughly — then warmed one of the stockings and drew it on.
"It feels so good," said Mary, faintly, yet with a tone of satisfaction.
Then the other foot was dried, warmed, and covered. On completing this welcome service, Mrs. Grant looked more steadily into Mary's face, and saw that her cheeks were flushed unnaturally, and that her eyes shone with an unusual luster. She also noticed, that in breathing there was an effort.
"You got very wet this morning," said Mrs. Grant.
"Yes. The wind blew right in my face all the way. An umbrella was hardly of any use."
"You dried yourself on getting to Mrs. Lowe's?"
Mary shook her head.
"There was no fire in the room."
"I had no change of clothing, and there was no fire in the room. What could I do?"
"You could have gone down into the kitchen, if nowhere else, and dried your feet."
"It would have been better if I had done so; but you know how hard it is for me to intrude myself or give trouble."
"Give trouble! How strangely you do act, sometimes! Isn't your life worth a little trouble to save? Mrs. Lowe should have seen to this. Didn't she notice your condition?"
"I think not."
"Well, it's hard to say who deserves most censure — you or she. Such trifling with health and life is a crime. What's the matter?" She observed Mary startle as if from sudden pain.
"I have suffered all day, with an occasional sharp stitch in my side — it caught me just then."
Mrs. Grant observed her more closely; while doing so, Mary coughed two or three times. The cough was tight and had a wheezing sound.
"Have you coughed much?" she asked.
"Not a great deal. But I'm very tight here," laying her hand over her bosom. "I think," she added, a few moments afterwards, "that I'll go up to my room and get to bed. I feel tired and sick."
"Wait until I can get you some tea," replied Mrs. Grant. "I'll bring down a pillow, and you can lie here on the sofa."
"Thank you, Mrs. Grant. You are so kind and thoughtful." Miss Carson's voice shook a little. The contrast between the day's selfish indifference of Mrs. Lowe — and the evening's motherly consideration of Mrs. Grant, touched her. "I will lie down here for a short time. Perhaps I shall feel better after getting some warm tea. I've been chilly all day."
The pillow and a shawl were brought, and Mrs. Grant covered Mary as she lay upon the sofa; then she went to the kitchen to hurry up tea.
"Come, dear," she said, half an hour afterwards, laying her hand upon the now sleeping girl. A drowsy feeling had come over Mary, and she had fallen into a heavy slumber soon after lying down. The easy touch of Mrs. Grant did not awaken her. So she called louder, and shook the sleeper more vigorously. At this, Mary startled up, and looked around in a half-conscious, bewildered manner. Her cheeks were like scarlet.
"Come, dear — tea is ready," said Mrs. Grant.
"Oh! Yes." And Mary, not yet clearly awake, started to leave the room instead of approaching the table.
"Where are you going, child?" Mrs. Grant caught her arm.
Mary stood still, looking at Mrs. Grant, in a confused way.
"Tea is ready." Mrs. Grant spoke slowly and with emphasis.
"Oh! Ah! Yes. I was asleep." Mary drew her hand across her eyes two or three times, and then allowed Mrs. Grant to lead her to the table, where she sat down, leaning forward heavily upon one arm.
"Take some of the toast," said Mrs. Grant, after pouring a cup of tea. Mary helped herself, in a dull way, to a slice of toast, but did not attempt to eat. Mrs. Grant looked at her closely from across the table, and noticed that her eyes, which had appeared large and glittering when she came home — were now lustreless, with the lids drooping heavily.
"Can't you eat anything?" asked Mrs. Grant, in a voice that expressed concern.
Mary pushed her cup and plate away, and leaning back, wearily, in her chair, answered —
"Not just now. I'm completely worn out, and feel hot and sick."
Mrs. Grant got up and came around to where Mary was sitting. As she laid her hand upon her forehead, she said, a little anxiously, "You have considerable fever, Mary."
"I wouldn't wonder." And a sudden cough seized her as she spoke. She cried out as the rapid concussions jarred her, and pressed one hand against her side.
"Oh dear! It seemed as if a knife were cutting through me," she said, as the paroxysm subsided, and she leaned her head against Mrs. Grant.
"Come, child," and the kind woman drew upon one of her arms. "In bed is the place for you now."
They went upstairs, and Mary was soon undressed and in bed. As she touched the cool sheets, she shivered for a moment, and then shrank down under the clothes, shutting her eyes, and lying very still.
"How do you feel now?" asked Mrs. Grant, who stood bending over her.
Mary did not reply.
"Does the pain in your side continue?"
"Yes, ma'am." Her voice was dull.
"And the tightness over your chest?"
"What can I do for you?"
"Nothing. I need rest and sleep."
Mrs. Grant stood for some time looking down upon Mary's red cheeks; red in clearly defined spots, that made the pale forehead whiter by contrast.
"Something more than sleep is needed, I fear," she said to herself, as she passed from the chamber and went downstairs. In less than half an hour she returned. A moan reached her ears as she approached the room where the sick girl lay. On entering, she found her sitting high up in bed; or, rather, reclining against the pillows, which she had adjusted against the head-board. Her face, which had lost much of its redness, was pinched and had a distressed look. Her eyes turned anxiously to Mrs. Grant.
"How are you now, Mary?"
"Oh, I'm sick! Very sick, Mrs. Grant!"
"Where? How, Mary?"
"Oh, dear!' I'm so distressed here!" laying her hand on her chest. "And every time I draw a breath, such a sharp pain runs through my side into my shoulder. Oh, dear! I feel very sick, Mrs. Grant."
"Shall I send for a doctor?"
"I don't know, ma'am." And Miss Carson threw her head from side to side, uneasily — almost impatiently; then cried out with pain, as she took a deeper inspiration than usual.
Mrs. Grant left the room, and going downstairs, despatched her servant for a physician, who lived not far distant.
"It is pleurisy," said the doctor, on examining the case. "And a very severe attack," he added, aside, to Mrs. Grant.
Of the particulars of his treatment, we will not speak. He was of the exhaustive school, and took blood freely — striking at the inflammation through a reduction of the vital system. When he left his patient that night, she was free from pain, breathing feebly, and without constriction of the chest. In the morning, he found her with considerable fever, and suffering from a return of the pleuritic pain. Her pulse was low and quick, and had a wiry thrill under the fingers. The doctor had taken blood very freely on the night before, and hesitated a little on the question of opening another vein, or having recourse to cups. As the lancet was at hand, and most easy of use, the vein was opened, and permitted to flow until there was a marked reduction of pain. After this, an pain-killing diaphoretic was prescribed, and the doctor retired from the chamber with Mrs. Grant. He was much more particular, now, in his inquiries about his patient and the immediate cause of her illness. On learning that she had been permitted to remain all day in a cold room, with wet feet and damp clothing, he shook his head soberly, and remarked, partly speaking to himself, that doctors were not of much use in suicide or murder cases. Then he asked, abruptly, and with considerable excitement of manner —
"In heaven's name! who permitted this thing to be done? In what family did it occur?"
"The lady for whom she worked yesterday is named Mrs. Lowe."
"And she permitted that delicate girl to sit in wet clothing, in a room without fire, on a day like yesterday?"
"It is so, doctor."
"Then I call Mrs. Lowe a murderer!" The doctor spoke with excess of feeling.
"Do you think Mary so very ill, doctor?" asked Mrs. Grant.
"I do, ma'am."
"She is free from pain now."
"So she was when I left her last night; and I expected to find her showing marked improvement this morning. But, to my concern, I find her really worse instead of better."
"Worse, doctor? Not worse!"
"I say worse to you, Mrs. Grant, in order that you may know how much depends on careful attendance. Send for the medicine I have prescribed at once, and give it immediately. It will quiet her system and produce sleep. If perspiration follows, we shall be on the right side. I will call in again through the day. If the pain in her side returns, send for me."
The pain did return, and the doctor was summoned. He feared to strike his lancet again; but cupped freely over the right side, thus gaining for the suffering girl a measure of relief. She lay, after this, in a kind of stupor for some hours. On coming out of this, she no longer had the stabbing pain in her side with every expansion of the lungs; but, instead, a dull pain, attended by a cough and tightness of the chest. The cough was, at first, dry, unsatisfactory, and attended with anxiety. Then came a tough mucus, a little streaked with blood. The expectoration soon became freer, and assumed a brownish hue. A low fever accompanied these bad symptoms.
The case had become complicated with pneumonia, and assumed a very dangerous type. On the third day, a consulting physician was called in. He noted all the symptoms carefully, and with a seriousness of manner which did not escape the watchful eyes of Mrs. Grant. He passed but few words with the attendant physician, and their exact meaning was veiled by medical terms; but Mrs. Grant understood enough to satisfy her that little hope of a favorable outcome was entertained.
About the time this consultation over the case of Mary Carson was in progress, it happened that Mrs. Wykoff received another visit from Mrs. Lowe.
"I've called," said the latter, speaking in the tone of one who felt annoyed, "to ask where that sewing girl you recommended to me lives?"
"Yes, I believe that is her name."
"Didn't she come on Monday, according to appointment?"
"Oh, yes, she came. But I've seen nothing of her since."
"Ah! Is that so? She may be sick." The voice of Mrs. Wykoff dropped to a shade of seriousness. "Let me see — Monday — didn't it rain? — Yes, now I remember; it was a dreadful day. Perhaps she took cold. She's very delicate. Did she get wet in coming to your house?"
"I'm sure I don't know." There was a slight indication of annoyance on the part of Mrs. Lowe.
"It was impossible, raining and blowing as it did, for her to escape wet feet, if not drenched clothing. Was there fire in the room where she worked?"
"Fire! No. We don't have grates or stoves in any of our rooms."
"Oh, then there was a fire in the heater?"
"We never make fire in the heater before November," answered Mrs. Lowe, with the manner of one who felt annoyed.
Mrs. Wykoff mused for some moments.
"Excuse me," she said, "for asking such minute questions; but I know Miss Carson's extreme delicacy, and I am fearful that she is sick, as the result of a cold. Did you notice her when she came in on Monday morning?"
"Yes. I was standing in the hall when the servant admitted her. She came rather late."
"Did she go immediately to the room where she was to work?"
"You are sure she didn't go into the kitchen and dry her feet?"
"She went upstairs as soon as she came in."
"Did you go up with her?"
"Excuse me, Mrs. Lowe," said Mrs. Wykoff, who saw that these questions were chafing her visitor, "for pressing my inquiries so closely. I am much concerned at the fact of her absence from your house since Monday. Did she change any of her clothing — take off her stockings, for instance, and put on dry ones?"
"Nothing of the kind."
"But sat in her wet shoes and stockings all day!"
"I don't know that they were wet, Mrs. Wykoff," said the lady, with contracting brows.
"Could you have walked six or seven squares in the face of Monday's driving storm, Mrs. Lowe, and escaped wet feet? Of course not. Your stockings would have been wet half way to the knees, and your skirts also."
There was a growing excitement about Mrs. Wykoff, united with an air of so much seriousness, that Mrs. Lowe began to feel a pressure of alarm. Selfish, cold-hearted and indifferent to all in a social grade beneath her — this lady was not quite ready to stand up in the world's face, as one without common humanity. The way in which Mrs. Wykoff was presenting the case of Miss Carson on that stormy morning, did not reflect very creditably upon her; and the thought — "How would this sound, if told of me?" — did not leave her in the most comfortable frame of mind.
"I hope she's not sick. I'm sure the thought of her being wet never crossed my mind. Why didn't she speak of it herself? She knew her own condition, and that there was fire in the kitchen. I declare! some people act in a manner perfectly incomprehensible." Mrs. Lowe spoke now in a disturbed manner.
"Miss Carson should have looked to this herself, and she was wrong in not doing so — very wrong," said Mrs. Wykoff. "But she is shrinking and sensitive to a fault — afraid of giving trouble or intruding herself. It is our place, I think, when strangers come into our houses, no matter under what circumstances, to assume that they have a natural delicacy about asking for needed consideration, and to see that all things due to them are offered. I cannot see that any exceptions to this rule are admissible. To my thinking, it applies to a servant, a seamstress, or a guest — each in a just degree, with equal force. Not that I am blameless in this thing. Far from it. But I acknowledge my fault whenever it is seen, and repenting, resolve to act more humanely in the future."
"Where does Miss Carson live?" asked Mrs. Lowe. "I came to make the inquiry."
"As I feel rather troubled about her," answered Mrs. Wykoff, "I will go to see her this afternoon."
"I wish you would. What you have said makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I hope there is nothing wrong; or, at least, that she is only slightly indisposed. It was thoughtless in me. But I was so much interested in the work she was doing, that I never once thought of her personally."
"Did she come before breakfast?"
"Excuse me; but at what time did she get her breakfast?"
There was just a little shrinking in the manner of Mrs. Wykoff; as she answered —
"Towards nine o'clock."
"Did she eat anything?"
"Well, no, not much in particular. I thought her a little dainty. She took coffee; but it didn't just appear to suit her appetite. Then I offered her tea, and she drank a cup."
"But didn't take any solid food?"
"Very little. She struck me as a dainty Miss."
"She is weak and delicate, Mrs. Lowe, as anyone who looks into her face may see. Did you give her a lunch towards noon?"
"A lunch! Why no!" Mrs. Lowe elevated her brows.
"How late was it when she took dinner?"
"Did she eat heartily?"
"I didn't notice her particularly. She was at the table for only a few minutes."
"I fear for the worst," said Mrs. Wykoff. "If Mary Carson sat all day on Monday in damp clothes, wet feet, and without taking a sufficient quantity of nourishing food — I wouldn't give much for her life."
Mrs. Lowe gathered her shawl around her, and arose to depart. There was a cloud on her face.
"You will see Miss Carson today?" she said.
"At what time do you think of going?"
"I shall not be able to leave home before late in the afternoon."
"Say four o'clock."
"Not earlier than half past four."
Mrs. Lowe stood for some moments with the air of one who hesitated about doing something.
"Will you call for me?" Her voice was slightly depressed.
"What you have said, troubles me. I'm sure I didn't mean to be unkind. It was thoughtlessness altogether. I hope she's not ill."
"I'll leave home at half past four," said Mrs. Wykoff. "It isn't over ten minutes' walk to your house."
"You'll find me all ready. Oh, dear!" and Mrs. Lowe drew a long, sighing breath. "I hope she didn't take cold at my house. I hope nothing serious will grow out of it. I wouldn't have anything of this kind happen for the world. People are so uncharitable. If it should get out, I would be talked about dreadfully; and I'm sure the girl is a great deal more to blame than I am. Why didn't she see to it that her feet and clothes were dried before she sat down to her work?"
Mrs. Wykoff did not answer. Mrs. Lowe stood for a few moments, waiting for some exculpatory suggestion; but Mrs. Wykoff had none to offer.
"Good day. You'll find me all ready when you call."
And the ladies parted.
* * * * *
A street meeting, ten minutes later:
"Ah, Mrs. Lowe! How are you this morning?"
"Right well. How are you, Mrs. Jones?"
"Well as usual. I just called at your house."
"Ah, indeed! Come back again to my house."
"No, thank you; I've several more calls to make this morning. But, do you know, there's a strange story afloat about a certain lady of your acquaintance?"
"Of my acquaintance?"
"Yes, a lady with whom you are very, very intimate."
"What is it?" There was a little anxiety mixed with the curious air of Mrs. Lowe.
"Something about murdering a sewing-girl."
"What?" Mrs. Lowe startled as if she had received a blow; a frightened look came into her face.
"But there isn't anything in it, of course," said Mrs. Jones, in considerable astonishment at the effect produced on Mrs. Lowe.
"Tell me just what you have heard," said the latter. "Do you mean me — by the lady of your intimate acquaintance."
"Yes, the talk is about you. It came from a doctor somebody; I don't know whom. He's attending the girl."
"What is said? I wish to know. Don't keep back anything on account of my feelings. I shall know as to its truth or falsehood; and, true or false, it is better that I should stand fully advised. A seamstress came to work for me on Monday — it was a stormy day, you know — took cold from wet feet, and is now very ill. That much I know. Now, out of this simple fact — what dreadful report is circulated to my injury? As I have just said, don't keep anything back."
"The story," replied the friend, "is that she walked for half a mile before breakfast, in the face of that terrible north-east storm, and came to you with feet soaking and skirts wet to the knees, and that you put her to work, in this condition, in a cold room, and allowed her to sit in her wet garments all day. That, in consequence, she went home sick, was attacked with pleurisy in the evening, which soon ran into acute pneumonia, and that she is now dying. The doctor, who told my friend, called it murder, and said, without hesitation, that you were a murderer!"
"Dying! Did he say that she was dying?"
"Yes, ma'am. The doctor said that you might as well have put a bullet through her head."
"Yes, you. Those were his words, as repeated by my friend."
"Who is the friend to whom you refer?"
"And, without a word of inquiry as to the degree of blame referable to me, she repeats this wholesale charge, to my injury? Truly, that is Christian charity!"
"I suggested caution on her part, and started to see you at once. Then she did sit in her wet clothing all day at your house?"
"I don't know whether she did or not," replied Mrs. Lowe, fretfully. "She was of woman's age, and competent to take care of herself. If she came in wet, she knew it; and there was fire in the house, at which she could have dried herself. Even a half-witted person, starting from home on a morning like that, and expecting to be absent all day, would have provided herself with dry stockings and slippers for a change. If the girl dies from cold taken on that occasion, it must be set down to suicide — not murder. I may have been thoughtless, but I am not responsible. I'm sorry for her; but I cannot take blame to myself. The same thing might have happened in your house."
"It might have happened in other houses than yours, Mrs. Lowe, I will admit," was replied. "But I do not think it would have happened in mine. I was once a seamstress myself and for nearly two years went out to work in families. What I experienced during those two years, has made me considerate towards all who come into my house in that capacity. Many who are compelled to earn a living with the needle, were once in better condition than now, and the change touches some of them rather sharply. In some families they are treated with a thoughtful kindness — in strong contrast with what they receive in other families. If sensitive and retiring, they learn to be very wary about asking for anything beyond what is conceded, and bear, rather than suggest or complain."
"I've no patience with that kind of sensitiveness," replied Mrs. Lowe; "it's simply ridiculous; and not only ridiculous, but wrong. Is every sewing-girl who comes into your house to be treated like an honored guest?"
"We are in no danger of erring, Mrs. Lowe," was answered, "on the side of considerate kindness, even to sewing-women. They are human, and have needs, and weaknesses, and bodily conditions that as imperatively demand a timely and just regard, as those of the most honored guest who may sojourn with us. And what is more, as I hold, we cannot omit our duty either to the one or to the other, and be blameless. But I must hurry on. Good day, Mrs. Lowe."
"Good day," was coldly responded. And the two ladies parted.
We advance the time a few hours.
It is nearly sundown, and the slant beams are coming in through the partly-raised blinds, and falling on the bed, where, white, and panting for the shortcoming breath, lies Mary Carson, a little raised by pillows against which her head rests motionless. Her eyes are shut, the brown lashes lying in two deep fringes on her cheeks. Away from her temples and forehead, the hair has been smoothly brushed by loving hands, and there is a serene beauty in her face. Mrs. Grant is on one side of the bed, and the physician on the other. Both are gazing intently on the sick girl's face.
The door opens, and two ladies come in, noiselessly — Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Wykoff. They are strangers there to all but Mary Carson, and she has passed too far on the journey homeward, for mortal recognitions. Mrs. Grant moves a little back from the bed, and the two ladies stand in her place, leaning forward, with half-suspended breathing. The almost classic beauty of Miss Carson's face; the exquisite cutting of every feature; the purity of its tone — are all at once so apparent to Mrs. Lowe that she gazes down — wonder and admiration mingling with awe and self-accusation.
There is a slight convulsive cough, with a fleeting spasm. The white lips are stained. Mrs. Lowe shudders. The stain is wiped off, and all is still as before. Now the slanting sun rays touch the pillows, close beside the white face, lighting it with a glory that seems not of the earth. They fade, and life fades with them, going out as they recede. With the last pencil of sunbeams, passes the soul of Mary Carson.
"It is over!" The physician breathes deeply, and moves backwards from the bed.
"Over with her," he adds, like one impelled by crowding thoughts to untimely utterance. "The death certificate will say pneumonia — but it would be more accurately written, murder!"
Call it murder, or suicide, as you will; only, fair reader, see to it that responsibility in such a case lies never at your door!