The Contributors' Club
IN the midst of a queer higglety-pigglety dream, last night, I thought the Great Panjandrum appeared to me with the kind offer to have some one class of my fellow-beings immediately exterminated ; provided I could, without taking too much of his valuable time, decide which particular class it should be. Just seven minutes were given in which to make and announce the decision. Of course I accepted with alacrity, and at once hastened to run over in my mind such of the obnoxious varieties of human nature as could most speedily be recalled. At first I thought I would select the people who do not answer letters; but I reflected that sometimes we write letters in haste, which had better be answered at leisure, long leisure, or even not at all, on the principle that the least said, soonest mended. Then I dallied for a moment with the idea that it should be those who, hearing us say things in joke, straightway report them as things said in earnest. Surely, thought I to myself, we can’t go amiss in having this venomous species obliterated ! But as the genial destroyer looked at his watch a little impatiently, I hurriedly recollected certain other deserving candidates. There were those who always allow for everybody else’s being late at appointments, and so afflict the punctual soul with a quarter of an hour of painful fidgets ; and those who send us lukewarm verses, with a request for an introduction to the favorable notice of the editors of the great magazines; and those who borrow tennis-rackets and sheet-music; and the book-store attendants who tag us around with recommendations of the latest inanities ; and the botherhood [sic] of locomotive engineers who agonize the ear of night with gratuitous shrieks as of whistling fiends ; and the literary ladies who follow up our plainest observations with praise of how nicely, or prettily, or nobly, or something, it was said.
“ Six minutes and three quarters,” whispered the Grand Panjandrum, punching at me with his sceptre, and knocking his little round button at top against the ceiling, as he hastily rose. I made one more rapid snatch among my recollections of people who are with difficulty to be endured, and cried, “ Take those who carry a perpetual countenance of cold displeasure, and contrive to make each member of the household, or the company, feel that he is at all times the special object of it! ” The departing monster nodded benignly over his shoulder and winked, as who should say, “ You have chosen well ! ”
— Now that public attention is being so constantly addressed to the relations between employer and employee, and the so-called labor question ” is undergoing such eager discussion among all classes, can any one suggest a reason why, in spite of all that we hear in regard to the sufferings and oppression of the laboring people, the difficulty of obtaining employment, and the miserable remuneration accorded nearly all kinds of manual labor, nothing seems to affect the wages of our female servants ? They remain at the same high figure to which they were advanced when the exigencies of our civil war forced us into the use of a depreciated paper currency.
Up to that terrible period of bloodshed and confusion, the mistress of a small household could hire a maid-of-allwork for eight dollars per month ; and if she were willing to struggle with the ignorance and incapacity of a girl fresh from the green isle of Erin, she could find any number willing to serve her for even a less amount. In fact, six dollars per month was considered an ample sum to give an inexperienced servant. Now, an offer such as this would be received with a broad grin of amazement by the youngest and most unlearned of the seekers after American gold that every great ship brings to our shores.
If there is any reason for this immutability of pay in this one single department of the endlessly fluctuating labor market, I should be glad to have it pointed out. Everything that a female servant has to buy in order to make and keep herself comfortable and respectable in her situation is now quite as cheap as it was before the war. Calico of the best quality can be bought for the equivalent of the old-fashioned shilling; the “ shilling calico ” and the “ sixpenny calico,” so much discussed by our grandmothers, being now of even a firmer texture and more lasting as regards its colors than it was in their day. Good stout walking-boots can be purchased at three dollars a pair, which is as low a sum as shoemakers have ever asked. Muslin is cheap and millinery is cheap, and, in fact, unless a servant desires to dress far beyond her station, she would be puzzled to expend even half of her monthly wage of fourteen to sixteen dollars upon dress.
If our servants had anything to do with providing their own food, there would, perhaps, be some small reason for paying them these sums. Beef may cost double what it used, and the price of the loaf increase while its size decreases, but the denizen of our kitchen has no concern in the matter.
There can be no question that many a mistress of a small household, whose modicum of strength is insufficient to admit of her performing the domestic feat called “ doing her own work,” and to whom a “girl ” is a necessity, would esteem herself most fortunate if she could know that her yearly allowance for her wardrobe would not be less than $180. Indeed, I fancy I can see a smile on the face of many a careworn housekeeper, as she estimates the wide difference between this sum and the modest amount that stands under the head of “ Personal Expenses,” in her yearly account book. Yet she is burdened with the obligation to dress and appear “like a lady,” while Bridget, upon whom no such obligation rests, and whose habits and manner of living ought not to carry her into any society where elaborate toilettes are the custom, is fully able to provide herself with a new bonnet, fresh gloves, or a fashionable costume whenever the fancy seizes her.
The picture is a ridiculous one, but any one who would take the trouble to scan closely the two doors through which mistress and maid make their egress from our middle-class homes, when the church-bells ring of a Sunday morning, would see, in the majority of cases, a plain, neatly clad figure issue from the upper portal, while the area gate opened to let forth a stately form in draperies of flowing silk or satin, crowned with the latest wonder in the way of millinery, and waving a lace parasol in a hand covered by a six-button kid glove made in Paris.
I should be the last to cast any slurs upon the business qualifications of our sex ; but in looking about for a reason for this remarkable state of affairs in this one department of labor, I cannot find any, unless it be that the hiring and paying of female domestic servants lies entirely in the hands of women. In factories, in shops, in all kinds of job work, the arrangement and controlling power are in the hands of men. They discover what is the condition of the labor market with regard to the industry they are interested in, they calculate the supply and demand, and they arrange a scale of prices based upon the showing made by these facts. Alas, that in so many instances they pay such meagre sums for honest toil that the toiler can scarcely keep body and soul together, let alone indulge in extravagances. That, however, is not the subject under consideration.
It must be admitted that all dealings with female house servants are entrusted to women. They, then, are responsible for the prices paid for the work they have to offer ; and it is equally clear that they are paying for it at a ratio with which nothing else in the labor market is comparable. Are female servants scarce ? Certainly not. Look at the crowded benches in our so-called “intelligence [Heaven save the mark!] offices ; ” glance at the long line of steerage passengers, as they defile into Castle Garden from the crowded decks of our emigrant ships. Hundreds of women and girls are hastening to our shores from every part of Europe, asking for places in our kitchens. Is it that most of these are ignorant, and valueless to the housekeeper who must have skilled labor ? No. Ignorant most of them certainly are, and many seem incapable of learning ; yet the Irish girl who, if employed in Dublin, would consider herself well paid for her labor by £10, or at most £12, per annum, no sooner presses her foot upon American soil than she demands $200.
More than any class of women in the world, if we except the indolent Asiatic, do American women need servants. We have not the robust frame nor the sturdy strength of the British matron or the German Hausfrau. Our climate is exhausting, our lives are varied and exciting, our frames are slight, and our nerves weak. We can do much with our heads, — much planning and thinking, much arranging and directing. To supplement this we need the strong arms, the tireless backs, of the peasant women of the Old World. If we were wise and sensible enough to pay them moderately but fairly, to make them dress suitably and live plainly, in every case where we now can have but one pair of hands to assist in the household work, while we make shift to do the rest, we might have two. Yes, there is no question that if the maid-of-all-work, who now receives sixteen dollars per month, and is fed “ like one of the family,” were to receive the same wages that an English housekeeper would pay, to eat what English servants are given to eat instead of our broils and roasts and dainty luxuries in the way of desserts, the jaded female head of our smaller American households would find that she could “keep two girls ” without adding a dollar to her yearly expenses.
And why cannot this be done ? Is it not a positive wrong that it should not be done ? The poor of Europe are crowding to our shores, demanding work, and there is none for them ; begging for food and shelter, and suffering misery and lapsing into sin for want of decent homes and honest labor. Are not our women blind to their duty in giving one what is abundant for two, in keeping up an unnatural and unreasonable scale of prices for the benefit of a few ? We have not waited for our employees to impress the boycott upon us; we have boycotted ourselves. Without reason, without outside pressure, in defiance of common sense, and to their detriment and ours, we insist upon a state of affairs that is a sarcasm upon our judgment, and a convincing proof that, whatever we may attain to in the future, men are very right yet in saying that we lack business knowledge and capacity, and show ourselves singularly unintelligent in regard to the conduct of affairs.
— If I could only translate a fragrance into words; explain why, when I smell a certain flower, I remember certain personal experiences, of no value to any one but the owner! — but I cannot. Let me try what I can do with a sound, a musical reminder : —
The gladly solemn sound ” —
The people down below
Turned and looked round.
The leader’s pitch-pipe was not new.
What was it, when the trumpet blew,
About the sound
To make the congregation look around ?
There was the miller tenor’s face ;
And there the clerk,
Who, having closed his six days’ work
Behind the counter in “the store,”
Was not averse to one day more
Spent in a sphere a trifle higher,
And so sang “ counter “ in the choir ;
There, in his sombre Sunday suit,
The pedagogue essayed the flute ;
In tones alternate harsh and mellow
The carpenter sawed at the ’cello;
While, over on the other side,
The postmaster, with modest pride,
Winded the ophicleide.
That elderly, sharp-visaged dame,
With keen-edged voice,
Sang treble there — a trifle flat —
(The people never minded that)
When you and I were boys ;
There were the same half-dozen girls,
Each with a dozen dangling curls,
All standing in a row,
With hymn-books leather bound.
The gladly solemn sound ” —
Why should the folks below
Turn and look round ?
And ribbons ’cute,
There, on the second seat,
Beside the flute,
And almost elbowed by the fellow
Playing the ’cello,
A maiden sat, and sang the old “ fugue-tune ” —
Long as it was, ’t was ended all too soon —
In alto tunes, full, rich, and mellow.
The row of girls had added to the smart;
But this new voice — its tones not loud, but clear —
Pierced to my heart,
And filled it with a mad desire
To join the choir.
For well I knew
I could not cling
To such a hope. I could not sing!
My tuneless throat
Held not a single note.
And yet that “gladly solemn sound”
An echo in my soul had found ;
I longed to occupy a seat
Between the flute and alto sweet,
Or ’twixt the bow upon her bonnet
And that other bow with rosin on it.
And I that sweet new alto heard:
And doubtless you will be surprised
To know my hope is realized.
No, no! I have not learned to sing, —
I could not compass such a thing
Within so short a space.
I occupy no place
Up in the choir. It would not do;
My tuneless voice too well I knew
To show my face
Where “gladly solemn ” trumpets blew!
To sit beside her in the choir,
What could l do
But just reverse the situation ?
The alto joined the congregation,
And sits beside me in the pew !
— The difference in our estimate of people and things depends on how we take them. If we eat the whole nut, we find a good deal that is coarse and innutritions ; but if we have the habit of picking out the kernel, we generally find it sweet. Even the squirrel knows enough for that. Persons of a very wide and varied experience are apt to acquire this squirrelous wisdom. Out of each of their battles, sieges, and fortunes they have contrived to extract a central core that was interesting. The crude remainder of incident and circumstance, like the ache of the philosophical warrior with the broken leg, at least served “ to pass away the time.” A neighbor of mine finds human nature very humdrum. People bore him terribly. He should stop trying to take them whole. Even in one’s self there may be found some deeply hidden bit of good meat, however thick the shuck and shell. How delightful, and perennially delightful, is that friend who seems to have discovered this kernel in our husky nature ! What an agreeable day we pass when he succeeds, for the time being, in making it visible even to ourselves !
As experienced persons learn to extract the kernel from the real world, so contemplative persons learn to do it with books. Macaulay was said to be able to stop a minute at a book-stall, and pluck out the heart of a new volume. Others of us take longer, but we all have to acquire something of the art, in the bewildering presence of the constantly thronging crowd of books. It seems to me, for instance, that I found the very innermost kernel of Amiel’s Journal the first hour I spent in a preliminary reconnaissance of those charming pages. It was in the single phrase “ mâle résignation.” This “ resignation with energy,” — the giving up without giving in, — it is a whole philosophy of life in a nutshell.
— The inquiry has sometimes suggested itself to me, What is the most pathetic figure in story ? When I was a boy, the fate of Evangeline the Acadian always seemed to me the most piteous of all that I had ever known. Not so much at the end, — the wofulness of that finding of her lover too late did not impress me so much till those words had taken on their deeper meaning from the experience of life; but the perpetual disappointment, the hope, not crushed and ended, but continually revived, only to be the “ hope deferred that maketh the heart sick,” — this seemed to me the “ pity of it.” Most poignant of all appeared that moment in the story when, as Longfellow tells it,
Darted a light, swift boat, that sped away o the water.
Gabriel was it, who, weary with waiting, unhappy and restless,
Sought in the Western wilds oblivion of self and of sorrow.
Swiftly they glided along, close under the lee of the island,
But by the opposite bank, and behind a screen of palmettos,
So that they saw not the boat, where it lay concealed in the willows.
All undisturbed by the dash of their oars, and unseen, were the sleepers;
Angel of God, was there none to awaken the slumbering maiden ?
Swiftly they glided away, like the shade of a cloud on the prairie.
After the sound of their oars on the tholes had died in the distance,
As from a magic trance the sleepers awoke, and the maiden
Said with a sigh to the friendly priest, ‘ O Father Felician !
Something says in my heart that near me Gabriel wanders.
Is it a foolish dream, an idle and vague superstition ?
Or has an angel passed, and revealed the truth to my spirit ? ’ ”
In after-years, when this tale of the Acadian exiles had lost something of its pathos through mere familiarity, I read Chaucer’s story of Patient Griselde. What reader has it not impressed as a most piteous passage, where the poor mother meekly suffers the supposed loss of her “ children twain ” ? As it reads in the Clerke’s Tale : —
That he hire doughter caughte, right so he
(Or werse, if men can any werse devise),
Hath bent her sone, ful was of beautee :
And ever in on so patient was she,
That she no chere made of heavinesse,
But kist her sone and after gan it blesse.
Hire litel sone he wold in erthe grave,
His tendre limmes, delicat to sight,
Fro foules and fro bestes for to save.”
And, again, when the children are brought back to her alive and well: —
For pitous joye, and after hire swouning,
She bothe hire yonge children to hire calleth,
And in hire armes, pitously weping,
Embraceth hem, and tendrely kissing
Ful like a moder with hire suite teres
She bathed both his visage and his heres.
Your woful moder wened steadfastly That cruel houndes or som foul vermine
Had eten you; but God of his mercy,
And your benigne fader tendrely
Hath don you kepe: ’ and in that same stound
Al sodenly she swapt adoun to ground.”
Still later it seemed to me (and perhaps justly) that the instant when Lear recognizes Cordelia should be accounted the most pathetic instant of all recorded human destiny. Let me here, however, make the confession (and it goes toward showing that the drama of Shakespeare should be played as well as read, always provided it be played worthily) that it was not till I saw Edwin Booth portray the part that I realized its full power. It is where the old king stretches out his arms, and cries,—
I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward. . . .
For as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia ! ”
But there is a pathos that moves the intellect, rather than the source of tears. And to this faculty it has sometimes seemed, as I have meditated on the woful possibilities of human fate, that nothing can be more sorrowful than the destiny of Tithonus, the moon’s aged and immortal lover : —
The vapors weep their burden to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
The only cruel immortality
Consumes : I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Then did thou grant my asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and warr’d and wasted me,
And though they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth.
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, though even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me ?
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the stream
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.’’
But to me now, as I recall the “ moving accidents ” of written story, perhaps that appears most touching which Scott relates in the poem of Helvellyn ; though the chord which it touches be not of sympathy with manhood, but only of faithful dog-hood, most “ tender and true.” The quaint prelude relates, in its old-fashioned prose, how “ a young gentleman of talents and of a most amiable disposition perished by losing his way on the mountain. His remains were not discovered till three months afterwards, when they were found guarded by a faithful terrier bitch, his constant attendant during frequent solitary rambles through the wilds of Cumberland and Westmoreland.” It is the same incident that Wordsworth celebrates in a poem which has no passage of anything like the imaginative power of that which I am about to quote from Scott, yet I will recall to the reader its closing stanzas : —
This lamentable tale I tell !
A lasting monument of words
This wonder merits well.
Repeating the same timid cry,
This Dog had been through three months’ space
A dweller in that savage place.
Yes, proof was plain that since the day
When this ill-fated Traveler died,
The Dog had watched about the spot,
Or by his master’s side :
How nourished here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime ;
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate ! ”
And this is the passage from Scott, doubtless familiar to a hundred for every one who remembers the “ lasting monument” which the profounder yet often weaker poet wrought: —
For, faithful in death, his mute favorite attended,
The much-loved remains of her master defended,
And chased the hill-fox and the raven away.
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start ?
How many long days and long weeks didst thou number,
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart ?
And, oh, was it meet that —no requiem read o’er him,
No mother to weep, and no friend to deplore him,
And thou, little guardian, alone stretch’d before him
Unhonor’d the Pilgrim from life should depart ?
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wilder’d, he drops from some cliff high in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.”
Alter all, be it noted, this is not a morbid but a very wholesome directiou of inquiry. The contemplation of the real pathos of other lives, even if they be but products of the “ blind life within the brain,” may haply save us from that most contemptible of illusions, — the self-pitying fancy that there is anything specially pathetic or tragic in the commonplace fortunes of our own little well-enough-to-do and tea-and-toast-consuming life.