Old Cares for New
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
“Are all these your servants?” asked an alert Northern woman, whose entire household owes its spotless cleanliness to her own relentless hand; whose table is garnished, food prepared, clothes made, and mended, by her own fingers, or those of her sister. “What a fine time you must have! We are glad if we can have one; and most of us have none.” As to that, I suppose it depends upon the view-point. It may be, that with her three servants, my wife, Claudia, has an easy time. It is true, equally, if we grant that, that her money pays for it; and if money is not to make life fairer and easier, less a labor and a pain, why have money ? I wish those who have little money might have more, to make life sweeter, freer from care; or free, ever, for any of us, from the anticipation or apprehension of want. This is the one anguish the poor face daily; one hope they fight for, one thing we all beat in the ugly countenance of the Devil with: to make something for our own people, that, by so much, at least, life may be less hard than we have known it to be for those we have loved much. Otherwise, having enough one’s self, ’t were easy to rest satisfied with work well done, no matter what the return be. Yet, perhaps, the question of ease depends upon the view-point. God forbid that Claudia, my wife, should ever work as others in her place work, as I have seen my own loved people toil, from need! Let her rather keep a thousand servants! Frankly, this matter of ease is one of comparatives, and depends greatly upon the point of view: we get certain assistance in drudgery from our servants; meantime I manage my man, Walter’s, business affairs, and play the master for him in the old-fashioned way, heal his beast for him, build his cart, see that he has labor, give work when he has none, lend when he falls in need, get it again if he can pay it, or lose it, grateful that we have been enabled to aid an honest unfortunate; pay Prince’s debts, despite his animadversions, in order to defend Mary’s home from lien; save Mary herself from insurance and installment speculators, and the countless disreputable whites who prey upon the ignorance and hapless helplessness of the blacks; medicine and encourage her, prevent her from falling a prey to her own childish extravagance, Claudia buying the greater part of her clothes, more wisely and more economically than Mary herself feels that she can do it; and, between us, by Claudia’s surveillance, and my own wrath and willingness to apply a rough grasp to vicious matters, to keep both white and octoroon procuresses from enticing a handsome, decent young nurse to her everlasting ruin. Thus, between us, somehow, we all do live, each easier in one way, but with greater difficulty in another. We, Claudia and I, are rid of what men call drudgery and menial labor, which Claudia’s position in the world and active agency in many affairs in the community would not permit her to assume, and which I, while pursuing my vocation, have no time to entertain; but we are loaded with responsibilities which are not in any way avoided, nor are in any conscience avoidable; which are not easy to carry wisely, and are truly heavy at times to bear patiently or carefully.
I, for myself, have lived more easily, and with less worry, when I cooked my own meals, and made my own bed; I could do it again, and with a relieved sense; but it is not to be any more.
Life is scarcely easier; only a little more convenient by exchange: they give the lower labors of life; we assume all the responsibilities, as nearly as it is possible for white employers to do so at present. As the mother of Claudia’s Cousin Henry said to him as a lad, when the Emancipation Proclamation was made, and the War had set in to its fatal decline for the Confederacy: We may lose what we have hoped for; but go down on your knees, and thank God that you will be freed from an awful burden of instant responsibility for the bodies and souls of many men!
Let not the careful and economic Northern housewife who does all her own work think that the life of the Southern house-keeper is easy: where it is eased in one respect it takes on care in another. As for myself, I am content with the nature of our life; I do not know want; I have known it, not merely in name, but in a wearying aspect, a shadow across my whole youth; yet youth was happy! I do not deserve all that I have, perhaps; I am grateful; yet I have been easier when I had less, and had less care when I knew actual want. I have been far happier, to use the word commonly, when I have been poorer, because free from many great perplexities and extraneous responsibilities, which every employer of simple and childlike humanity must assume, if he wish to keep his conscience clean when he views it in his closet. I do not talk of things I do not know; I have moiled and sweated, and drudged daily, in apparently unending labor for small reward; yet even this I have since regarded as easier than what my friend regards as ease. My life, to-day, with four dark-faced and simple servants, seems less hard in the elimination of drudgery, but is harder through the amassing of strange cares: for, for every element of apparent ease, a new pain is given. All the leisure from labor which has been given to my life by the multiplication of servants, has been counterbalanced by the opening of new paths of duty plain before me. All the delight that has been added to my life in twenty years, lies in the happy possession of my wife, Claudia, and our two children; as for the ease, and the rest, you may have it for a peanut. I wish I could take the drudgery out of the life of my friend, and the fret; but I am convinced that though I did so I could not give her ease, but only the exchange of weariness. No doubt she longs for other opportunities of nobler efficiency; well, so do we here, and face handicaps to that efficiency which she has never known or beheld even in outraged fancies or disordered dreams.
Once in a while we all are bound to face our lives very frankly, and, without pretending, take invoice of what we have got for what we have given. The multiplicity of negro servants, faithful, affectionate, simple-hearted, easily gratified though they may be, when best, is not ease for honest men; was never easy to the conscientious; is becoming less easy. The evident pain and care of the master and mistress only assume new and different forms; to be freed from some responsibilities I could heartily welcome drudgery; and, as for Claudia, she pays quid pro quo, in care and cash, nursing the petulant and helpless, in patience always bearing with many irritations that I would not endure, and purchasing, by perpetual maintenance of cheerfulness in the face of constant peculiar trials and discomforts, any ease she may possess. Her life, to be sure, is not drudgery; God bless her! she would not permit it to be if it were, nor so much as admit that it could be, if done for those she is deeply affectioned towards. But it is not an easy one, and, I am confident, would at times, terribly perplex my Northern friend, with her small, pleasant, clean, and scrupulously-adjusted house, where breakage, and waste, recklessness, and childlike ability to comprehend the simplest problems of economy and life, do not fret; and where questions of a great right and wrong do not sometimes face one like shadowy spectres over the lives of one’s own beloved children, to whom, inevitably, we must bequeathe the unsolved problem of understanding what we ourselves have thus far unsuccessfully striven to comprehend.
To be sure, there is a difference between my wife, Claudia’s, point of view, and mine: Claudia has never known poverty, although her life, while one of wealth, has been one of the extremest simplicity; I have, and know that poverty is bitter; and that to exist in poverty and unrecompensing toil, without prospect other than of need and toil unrecompensed, is desperate; ill health, with poverty and many actual distresses added, is heartsickening to face in the quiet hours of bitter thought when the direct action is chill; and to wish to do for those whom we love, and to be unable so to do, is sometimes almost too much for love to bear. Yet I find, for myself, and would that my friend remember, — though, perhaps, I am not now so much preaching directly to my friend, as speaking for the benefit of those others who observe from afar off, — that for every ease that service gives here, in a land of sun and roses, is added a new care, sometimes a strange one; and for every privilege of relief from hand-labor, a penalty of duty; and for each bodily relief from toil and from task, a mental or moral responsibility, which none who is honest and honestly fears heaven’s forfeiture of growth, dares shirk.