Adventures in Indigence. Ii: The Adventure of Mamie Faffelfinger


THE nouveaux pauvres are, I believe, as a rule, fully as awkward with their poverty as the nouveaux riches with their wealth. They have not the true grand manner. They are not a whit more born to the rags than your suddenly prosperous parvenu to the purple. It is difficult to be at ease with them. Their behaviors, their manners, their speech, more often their silences, are forever reminding you of their former mode of living.

For these and other reasons, I willingly pass over those intervening years, when, though distinctly poor, I was unaccustomed, and wore my changed conditions, I do not doubt, awkwardly. I pass on to a later and more fixed season when, thrown wholly now on my own resources, and totally untrained and unfitted for such an emergency, I made shift to support myself, to live meagrely, and to endure what I took to be a well-nigh intolerable poverty.

Poverty is a variable term and much subject to comparison. Some will allow it only to those who have been born to it. To have been always halfstarved, these think, and to carry a basket from door to door — that is to be poor. But it is idle to think of cold and hunger to the point of beggary as the only cold and hunger there are. Not alone are there degrees of cold and hunger of the body, — discomfortable and ill-nourished living, — but there are, as well, things which seem to me even more difficult to endure — unsatisfied hunger of the mind and heart and a most cruel and persistent chill of the spirit. The literal-minded may need to see the open sore, the sightless eye, or the starved countenance, before their pity is moved; but he who has ever touched the spiritual values, will know — with a tenderness that is mercy — that in one who never asked for pity, one who perhaps even went outwardly gay, there may be hidden hurts borne unflinchingly; intolerable darknesses not complained of; crippled powers which once went proud and free; and a heart and mind which have endured, it may be, starved hours. These are, I believe, some of the most real poverties that the soul may be called on to endure.

In every circumstance of our lives lies the stirring knowledge that one’s own case, however strange, is far from being singular. There are others besides myself with whom Poverty has taken up its abode; there are others from whose cup Despair has daily drunk; who, looking up from their daily bread, have found Sorrow’s eyes forever on them. Those who have known these cup-companions need not be told how the House of Life can be darkened, or how these darker presences occupy the chambers of the mind. Nor need they yet be reminded how all this becomes bearable, even enduringly precious to the heart, if Love but remain and consent still to sit at the board, and, though with brows bent, still break bread with its white hands, and lift in its unshaken fingers the cup of bitter wine.

We went to live in the deep country, on what had once been a beautiful old estate. The house had not been lived in for years. It still preserved an air of beauty and dignity, but its ancient pride and fitness were turned toward decay. But if, like myself, it had fallen on adversity and evil days, that was but the better reason I should understand and love it. Wholly without what the world calls comforts, yet how comforting it was in those chill and cheerless days! Downfallen in the eyes of others, lowered from its proud estate, how I have yet lifted my heart up to it under the stars, and paid it an homage of love and thankfulness not matched, I think, in all its better days.

Our precarious means being entirely dependent on such writing as I could do, it would have been extravagance and bankruptcy for me to assume the domestic duties. There was no one else. I was the only woman of the household. It seemed to me that a working housekeeper might solve the difficulty; one of that variety which lays not so much stress upon wages as upon a home. I found a surprising number with this tendency — women who had seen better days and were by their own affidavit capable of standing anything. But I found them to be without exception, shrinkingly susceptible to physical discomforts, and of these there were in that old house many.

Each of them carried with her a remnant of her ‘better days,’ as an inveterate shopper carries an out-of-date sample, resolved, yet unable, to find its match. One of them could not forget, and had no mind to let you forget, that her husband had made four thousand a year; another had been to school in Paris; and one always wore rubber gloves, ‘because,’ she assured me, ‘as long as I can have my hands white, I can stand a great deal.’ Another insisted on the most fluffy and unsubstantial desserts, and thought the rest of the meal mattered little, so long as the finale had a grand air. Another could not endure the odor of onions and fainted at the sight of liver. Yet another, from reverses and humiliations unendurable, had turned Christian Scientist. I learned afterward that, she came hoping to convert me to the idea that there is no poverty. I wish I could have spared her the futility.

By and by I abandoned all hope of a working housekeeper. I knew that what I needed was a ‘general houseworker.’

Those who in extremity have sought servants in city employment bureaus need not be told what is too old a tale. When the array of imposing applicants had all declined the discomforts of my home, and the honor of being employed by me, the manager explained, what I was dull not to have known myself, that it might be wise to try some of the employment bureaus in the poorer quarters. I found one finally at the head of the Bowery and climbed its rickety stairs.

They were a strange and varied lot that I came upon now: weird old flatfooted fairies, given to feathers and elaborate head-dresses, or young heavy Audreys who looked at you out of dull eyes. I explained elaborately the conditions under which they would be called on to live. I omitted nothing, not even the screech-owls, or the night sounds that might or might not be wild cats. They came eagerly or sullenly, according to their dispositions. But apparently none of them had at all grasped what I said. For when they saw the place and fell the loneliness of which I had so thoroughly warned them, they turned and fled. The house might have been haunted.

Finally I heard that one could engage servants of a certain order from the Charities associations, more particularly from the Society for Improving the Condition of the Poor. Thither I went.

The matron, a full-eyed woman who gave the impression of having to discipline an over-kind heart by an assumption of great severity, questioned me curtly. What surroundings had I to offer? My heart sank, but I went over faithfully the disadvantages — the extreme loneliness of the life, the necessity that those who entered on it should abandon all hope of ‘movies.’ ‘Movies ’ there were not within twelve miles. There were no conveniences, no department stores, no bargain sales, nothing — only field and forest, stars and dawns and sunsets — nothing!

She lifted explanatory eyebrows, a little displeased, I thought.

‘I mean the moral surroundings.’ Then, at my pause, ‘I mean, are you yourself a Christian woman?’

Being perhaps the better satisfied on this point, for a rather faltering answer on my part, she sent a mild-eyed assistant for ‘Mamie Faffelfinger.’

She meanwhile explained in a businesslike way that Mamie was a Catholic, brought up in an orphan asylum; her child was not a year old; ‘ the man ’ (so the matron designated him curtly) was not her husband.

‘You mean she would wish a home for the child too?’

The full-eyed woman ceased turning her pencil between her thumb and fingers on the desk and gave me an aggressive look.

‘Certainly. Most of these people have n’t a crust to live on. If you do not wish to employ that kind, there are the employment bureaus.’

So they dawned on me like a blessing. These were not parvenu poor who had been to school in Paris, who would insist on unsubstantial desserts. Here were no head-dressy old fairies of questionable powers; these were no exotic fruits of the ‘gardens of Proserpine’; here was the good salt brine, here the ancient tides of reality— ‘the surge and thunder of the Odyssey.'

Meanwhile the matron was speaking:—

‘The man is not her husband. But if you are a Christian, I am sure you have no narrow scruples as to that. He drinks. She is half-starved. I have told her we will get her and the child a place, if she will promise to leave him.’ She glanced at the open doorway of her tiny office: ‘Yes, Mamie, come in.'

It was then that I first saw Mamie and Anne.

Mamie looked her part. She was pallid, rather pretty; very slight, with a skirt of extreme fineness. She had heavy-lidded eyes, that looked to have seen much weeping, and a smile the more pathetic for its great readiness.

As to Anne, a consistent story would require that she should be as pallid as her mother, that her little hand, intent now on her mother’s hat-brim, should be a mere kite’s claw; and there should have been delicate dark rings under her eyes. But, far from being a kite’s claw, the hand on the hat-brim was as plump as ripe fruit, and her cheeks were like smooth apricots perfect with the sun. But after all there is no describing Anne. If you will look at the child held in the arms of the Madonna of the Chair and then at the one in the arms of the Sistine Madonna; then, if you will picture a child not quite a year old, who might worthily be the little sister and companion of these, you will have some idea, even though inadequate still, of what Anne was, as she held tight to Mamie’s rakish hat-brim and gave me the solemn attention of her eyes.

I went over the requirements. I spoke of the loneliness. Not a town within miles.

‘Well, what do you think of that!’ Mamie replied. But she was unfeignedly eager to come.

‘When could you be ready?’

‘Oh, right away,’ she said. ‘I’ve got Anne’s clothes here.’ She glanced at a small paper bundle under one arm.

My good fairy, who pays me occasional visits, prevented my asking her where her own clothes were.

The matron interposed. Mamie could stay right there until I was ready to take her, late that afternoon. Then when Mamie had gone into the outer room, the matron explained.

‘ She has n’t any home to go to. He left her and raised money on her furniture. They came and took it. She has n’t even a stick of it.’

Tragic as this was, my mind was for the moment intent on something else.

‘But she wears a wedding ring!’ I said.

The matron pulled a heavy ledger toward her.

‘Oh, yes; they all do. They’d go starved, but they’d buy a wedding ring.’

She pressed her lips together, shook her head, and began setting down data, — my name, address, occupation, the names of two of my friends, — they must be people of some standing, who could vouch for me; then more as to Mamie, I suppose, in the interest of system and statistics.


I can give you no idea of the comradeship of that journey with Mamie and Anne. Mamie looked delightedly out of the car-window, noting the most trifling points of interest with enthusiasm, and saying every little while, ‘Well, what do you think of that!' Or she would excitedly point out some speeding bird, or flitting house, or other flying object, to Anne, and Anne would lurch forward to look, her little nose sometimes touching the pane, and then would turn good-naturedly and look at me with every air of asking me if that probably so-interesting object had managed to escape me also.

When we arrived at the house Mamie was as cheerful as a sparrow. The room on which flat-footed fairies and dull Audreys had looked with unconcealed contempt or disapproval, she flew to. She settled in it like a bird in her nest, and chirped contentedly to Anne, —

‘Oh, Anne, look at the nice bureau! And the washstand! What do you think of that!' Then she-turned to me, with that winning comradely smile; ‘I like bureaus and washstands — furniture, I mean, and things. It makes you think of home.’ And she drew her hand along the bureau.

I did not know then, but I soon found out, that this was the top and bottom of all her longings, and this the real hunger of her heart, — a hunger starved enough, of course, in all her orphanasylum years, — a craving for a place of her own.

Mamie talked much of ‘Bill.’ He filled her life and days, there could be no doubt. If she swept, it was to his glory. If she scrubbed a floor or kneaded dough, or bent affectionately over the scalloping of a pie-crust, it was certainly for love of him that she lent these her attention. She soon began sending him her weekly earnings. I remonstrated, and suggested that it might be better to save her money against another rainy day. She dusted her hands of flour and began scraping the bread-board, vigorously, with the strength of her whole body. I waited for my reply. At last it came.

‘Well, I will say you’ve been good to me, and Anne loves you — but I think you’ve got a hard heart.’

Secretly I agreed with her. I retrenched and urged her to send only a part of her money, saving the rest for furniture. Of course, I knew by this time that the word ‘furniture’ was to her like magic and a charm.

Meanwhile, fond as she was of Anne and proud of her, Mamie was bent on not spoiling her. She used to put her in a wooden tub in the sunshine on the floor of the kitchen, as Peter PumpkinEater put his wife in the pumpkin shell; and like Peter, there she kept her very well. And Anne, more ingenuous and happier than Diogenes, — for she liked it and crowed if people came into her sunshine, — would stay there perfectly happy and delighted for the greater part of the day, playing with an apple or a potato. I really never saw such a baby.

Meanwhile, although Bill was, it seems, drinking more than ever, with the aid, of course, of Mamie’s earnings, Mamie herself contrived to be above fact and experience, and was sure he was actively reforming. In a sense she really lived a charmed life.

It seemed that Fate and fact could deal her no blow which would finally affect her. She knew Bill’s failings better than the matron, by a great deal; but if you suppose that these could spoil the pure romance of life for her, or invalidate her dream of a home and furniture of her own, cushioned chairs owned and sat upon by the reformed Bill and herself, you are much mistaken.

She was a firm believer in miracles. ‘I know you don’t believe in them,’ she would say; ‘ but at the Orphan Asylum there was a statue of Saint Stephen that used to turn around over night, it really did, if it was pleased with what you did.’

Like so many of her class, Mamie had an incorrigible tendency toward rumor. Knowledge comes not to these by laborious delving of their own, but appears to be delivered to them out of the air as by bird auguries, and by all manner of unauthenticated hearsay infinitely rather to be trusted than fact. I take this to be in their case a survival of what was believed, in ancient times, to be speech with Divinity. However it may shock the modern mind to read of the Almighty giving out to Moses, not merely the majestic laws carven on tables of stone, but commands and detail and measurement of great exactness as to the stuff and manner of fashioning and trimming the High Priest’s breeches, to the minds of Mamie and her class there would be in this little that was shocking, they themselves believing and delighting in Divine collaboration in even the most homely matters.

Anne wore on a string about her neck a little square of Canton flannel which in the course of many months had become extremely grimy. I suggested as tactfully as I could that this was not in keeping with the laws of health, and might be, with a view to germs, a positive danger to Anne.

Mamie smiled happily, indulgently:

‘That’s just where you’re wrong! It’s to protect her from danger — specially danger by drowning!'

Once I suggested that, if I were she,

I would not feed Anne burned breadcrusts.

‘Oh, but they say they’re good for a baby; they say they’re splendid for the digestion.’

Useless to argue. She had always heard so. ‘They’ said so.

So it is that knowledge comes to them, not laboriously, as does our own, but by easy rumor, floating hearsay, and wisdom is brought to them without effort of their own, as viands to a king. They are fed by ravens. Their gourd grows over night. Messengers still come and go between heaven and earth to instruct them. There is not required of them, the laboring class, that slavish mental toil exacted of the world’s great intellects. Angels and ministers of grace, however they may have abandoned the wise, do still, it seems, defend them. They have only to be of a listening mind and a believing heart, and they shall know what is good for digestion, and what will save their children from drowning.

Mamie, further, was able to maintain a remarkable equilibrium between respectful service as a servant and what might have been the gracious democracy of a ruler. She taught Anne to call me ’Honey,’ and had it as a surprise for me one morning. I will not deny that it was a surprise. But if you think that so sweet an appellation in Anne’s bird-like voice, her golden head leaning over into the sunshine as she heard my step, seemed to me to be lacking in dignity, then you and I are of contrary opinions.

One day, when Mamie was dusting where hung a Fra Lippo Madonna, Anne pointed a fat finger at it, demanding, ‘Honey?’

Mamie did not even pause.

‘No,’ she said briskly, ’that’s not Honey. That’s Lord and Lord’s mawma.’


One day, Mamie came to me, her face beaming.

‘I want to do the right thing, so I’m going to give you a whole month’s notice. Bill has rented some rooms. What do you think of that!’

I told her gently, but firmly, what I suspected concerning it.

She brought out his letter for proof.

‘He’s to pay for the rooms, and I’m to send him the money for the furniture. He’ll get whatever kind I like. You’ve always been kind to me,’ she added, ‘but I think you’ve got a hard heart as to Bill.’

Well, perhaps I had.

The month passed very happily. As his letters came, she would tell me what he had bought.

‘It’s a bureau with a marble top, — second-hand, Second Avenue, — but as good as new. Besides, some people would rather have antiques. And I do like bureaus!’

Then it would be a table that set her singing her queer rag-time songs. Once there came word of three cushioned chairs. One letter announced a looking-glass. And once, as I went into the kitchen suddenly, there was Mamie, one arm above her head, the other holding her skirt, dancing for Anne to see and to Anne’s inexpressible wonder and delight. She sat there in her tub, leaning forward, beaming, fascinated, and holding tight to its sides as though we might all be personages in a fairytale, and she and the tub might any moment fly away.

At sight of me, Mamie stopped, flushing pink as a rose, apologetic, but unfeignedly happy.

‘I could n’t help it! He’s bought me a chiffoneer!

A moment later, as I passed through the hall, I could hear Mamie singing, ‘And she’s going back to her Daddy, and her home, home, home!' — to some impromptu rigmarole tune of her own.

Soon after this she took the train to the nearest town and came back laden with packages—all manner of cheap household stuff picked up at the fiveand-ten-cent store. It occurred to me that she might as well have a small empty trunk of mine that there was in the attic. She was delighted with the gift, and wore the key of it on a chain around her neck.

‘I’d rather have that key than a locket!’ she said, putting her hand over it affectionately. It was so that she repaid you tenfold. ‘It’s wonderful,’ she would say, every little while, in joyful anticipation, ‘having your own home!’

For myself, despite many unmitigated realities, I could not help feeling that I was living in something of a wonder story. Who knew but with those extraordinary powers of hers, which so readily rose above fact, who knew but that she might rub that key some day as Aladdin his lamp, and turn us all into triumphant heroes and heroines.

Mamie did not forget, as I said goodbye to her in the big city terminal where I finally left them, to give me parting advice, sisterly sympathy: —

‘Now, don’t you go and get discouraged. I know you’ve had troubles. Well, I’ve had trouble enough too. You just keep right on, and hold your head high. There’s no telling what’ll come to them that holds their heads high. Look at me!’

I looked at her and could have felt convinced. Then we said our goodbyes, and away they went. The last I saw of them in the crowd was Anne’s hand still waving loyally to me over Mamie’s shoulder quite a long time after her eyes had lost me.

I missed them exceedingly; and the bluebirds of that second spring hardly made up to me for the absence of Anne’s birdlike voice. The new maid, Margaret, was interesting enough, but no one could ever quite take the place of those others. With all this in mind, you will realize with what a sinking of the heart I found that there was more than Mamie to be missed. There could be no doubt in the matter, for there had been no outsider in the house at all of late; therefore it could be due to no other magic than hers that there was a grievous lessening of my scant stores of household belongings — sheets and pillow-cases, towels and a pair of blankets, napkins and I think a tablecloth, and some muffin-rings and kitchen conveniences, and I do not know what else.

Little bits of reality came drifting back to me — the key kept so faithfully always around her neck; my own gift of the trunk; and the sentiment — say now, if you like, the sentimentality — with which I had noted the fact that even that rather small trunk was too large for her poor belongings.

Then suddenly, the whole episode read to me like an Uncle Remus ‘Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit’ tale, and I was not too discouraged to laugh—as the ‘ Little Boy ’ is recorded always to have done — at the turn of the story, at the inevitable triumph of the cleverer of the two.

Yet for Mamie’s sake, not to speak of my own, such an ending was not to be permitted. I had asked her to come to see me in town on one of the days of the week that I was always there, and to be sure to bring Anne to see me. She had assured me that she would, and that she would never forget me. Now I knew it would be necessary, rather, for me to go and find her. I rehearsed the scene mentally. I meant to tell her that she could keep all the things she had stolen. (Let them remain in the manner of coals of fire in her trunk!) I would first reduce her to powder in a solemn and serious manner, and then strew her upon the winds of my righteous indignation! She whom I had treated with unfailing kindness! She whom in sickness I had nursed! She whose many faults had been forgiven her, and in whom I had placed trust! She!

Strangely enough she did come to see me, that very next day I was in town. She seemed eager to get to me; nervous, too, like one whipped of her conscience. I felt my heart suddenly softening and as quickly hardened it. I really had not expected quick penitence of her, but even so, she must take the full punishment of my disapproval. There is a duty we owe in such matters. I would make nothing easy for her.

She sat down heavily, then suddenly put her hand over quickly on mine. I made no sign. Not even that should move me. Then in a hoarse whisper, a really hoarse whisper, almost a moan, she said, —

‘Oh, how shall I tell you? How shall I tell you?’

Stony pause. I looked coldly at her. It seemed, for a moment, that the irresistible force really had met the immovable body. Then all at once, she put her head down on her arm, sobbed, and spoke.

‘There wasn’t any bureau! There was n’t any chiffoneer! There was n’t even any rooms!’

An instant of time swirled past. Then I knew, as of old, that the power of the poor is an irresistible force, never — never — not even by the immovable body of our strongest determinations, to be withstood. My own iron resolves I saw converted suddenly into the flimsiest fiction — rent gossamer floating wide.

Oh! Oh! I could have put my face in my hands and wept. All her dreams gone! All her hopes! her pride! her cherished plans! her money! her faith — everything! How small the theft of a few pillow-cases and towels looked now that, at Fate’s hands, she, poor thing, had had all this stolen from her! This was no time to reduce her to powder, when she was already reduced to floods of tears and I by no means far from the verge of them.

The story is too obvious to tell.

Mamie’s miracle had failed. The unreformable Bill had not reformed. But neither, — I hasten to add, — neither, it seems, was Mamie’s ineradicable desire for a home eradicated. I have mentioned before my belief that Fate cannot finally affect the people of this extraordinary class. I believe them all to have been plunged more effectually than Achilles in some protective flood.

Mamie, with the help of the perpetually severe, perpetually tender-hearted matron, went out to work again. But there may be those who would be more interested to know what I did with my resolves, my righteous indignation, and, above all, with my conscience. As to my conscience, I cleared that. I wrote to the matron, warning her that in assigning Mamie to any place, it should be remembered that, valuable as Mamie was in many ways, she had a light-fingered tendency to collect household goods. From my later knowledge, I believe that the matron may have smiled at the ingenuousness of that. It might readily be thought superfluous to warn the expert physicist that water does not run up hill.

As to my righteous indignation, it may seem to you a poor thing, but it never came back. Somehow I never quite forgot the grip of Mamie’s hand on mine that day, and her hoarse voice as it announced the total ruin of her hopes; or the memory, by contrast, of her little singing dance before Anne at a happier season, with Anne leaning forward holding delightedly to the sides of the tub.

He is not apt to be the most severe in correction who has suffered much discipline at the hands of Fate. It should be remembered by the unrelenting and conscientious disciplinarian who judges me, that I had seen the ruin of some of my own hopes. Joys that I had planned for full as eagerly as Mamie, delights that I had reared on more likely foundations, had been swept away and almost as suddenly. I am entering here on no philosophy, I am merely stating facts; and I may as well confess that I took comfort in the thought, that, though the bureau, the washstand and the ‘chiffoneer’ had fallen in the general ruin, Mamie still had the sheets, the pillow-cases, the towels, the muffin-rings, and the rest. It was even turning out a little like a fairy-tale after all, for I really now wanted her to have these, and in view of my own very meagre circumstances and my duties to others, I could not with a clear conscience have afforded to give them to her. She, as with a magic foresight, had contrived to relieve me of all embarrassment.

Meanwhile, I heard nothing more of Mamie. Then one day, I had this letter from her (I omit the independent spelling): —

I thought I’d write to tell you that Anne has a good Papa. He’s a farmer. I’m married again. (Since she was not married before, the ‘again’ may refer to a second wedding ring.) He’s got a nice house. Do come and see me. (Here followed very careful directions.) I’d like you to see our animals. We ’ve got five chickens, one rooster, a cat and a dog. He had a house already furnished. It’s good furnished too. The bed has got shams on the pillows.

It was not long after this that I had a letter from an old aunt of Mamie’s, of whom Mamie had several times spoken to me, and to whom she used sometimes to write. The aunt said that, though she had always been too poor to do anything for Mamie, still she took an interest in her. She knew I had been good to her. If it was n’t too much trouble, would I write and tell her how Mamie was, or would I send her her address if she was not with me.

I wrote her with a good deal of pleasure that Mamie was happily married (I did not quibble at the word) to a well-to-do farmer; that she had a nicely furnished house, some animals, and that her husband loved Anne devotedly.

Then I wrote to Mamie and sent her her aunt’s letter; and I told her that I thought it would be a kindness if she would write to the old lady.

In reply I had the following: ‘I know you meant to be kind. But I’m sorry you wrote to my aunt. It was n’t my aunt at all. It was Bill.’

Here also — I know it well — fact is less satisfactory than romance. There should, no doubt, be the telling scene of a sequel. I never saw Mamie again, however, and the unfocused waving of a fat, lovely little hand in that crowded terminal is my last memory of Anne.

You who read this may be in some uneasiness as to Mamie. I confess that I am not. I cannot forget the angels of grace that do undoubtedly attend on such. Need Pharaoh, having seen the wonders, be anxious do you think, as to how the departed children of Israel would be maintained in the desert places where he would so easily have perished?

But lest you should, nevertheless, have Mamie’s welfare at heart, and should entertain, with some misgivings, thought of what may have become of Anne, there are yet other signs and wonders of which I shall ask to be allowed to speak.

(To be continued)