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THE BUTTON-HOLE QUEEN.
PASSING along one morning, I saw, standing at her door, the
woman whose conversation with me I recounted in describing the life of that spot
of my District known as "Button-hole Row." She was stitching away as usual,
or rather, not as usual, for it was something unusual in her air that caused me
to stop and speak to her. Generally her manner was bright and cheery, her every
movement active, and her eyes noticeably clear and steady for a button-holer;
but now she seemed jaded, downcast, and heavy-eyed; and though she plied her
ever-busy needle with what to a stranger would have appeared a marvellous
rapidity, it was easy to see that she worked slowly-for her. Having returned her
"Good morning," I observed, in a friendly way, that I was afraid she had
been overworking herself, and that she should be careful of her health, and
particularly of her eyes-weakened and failing eyesight being the most prevalent
and most disastrous complaint among the button-holers unfitting them as it did
from following their employment.
"Well, I do feel a bit out of sorts this morning," she answered; "but it ain't as you think, though thanking you kindly all the same, sir. I wouldn't go to overwork [-217-] myself that much, not in a regular way, not from laziness sake, or being afraid of work, but because I know the value o' eyesight too well to go taxing em any more than I can help. I'm only a bit heavy-eyed for want of sleep; my eyes are as strong as ever they were; and, though there's some as wouldn't be of that opinion if they were as poor as me, I often think I have a deal to be thankful for when I look round and see how the hand of affliction is laid on some. Poor Mrs. Johnson! Just see how she's placed; it's heart-breaking only to think of it."
I remembered that George Johnson was the name of the youngest of the two sickly men whom I had noticed engaged in the feminine occupation of button-holing on the occasion of my first visit to the Row; and on the kind-hearted but voluble seamstress coming to a pause, I asked-
"Is her husband much worse, then?"
"Oh yes, sir," she replied, shaking her head; "he's as bad as he well can be, to be alive at all; though, being consumption, he don't think so, and she, poor thing, tries to believe for the best. He keeps saying as it's only weakness, and that he would get better if he could only get home to Herefordshire, where he come from; but, bless you, sir, the only home he'll ever go to will be his long home, and he'll go there soon; and, seeing how poor they are and that he can't work, I don't know but what it'll be a happy release, if only he's fit to go. Not as I say he isn't fit; I believe he's always been a steady, decent man; but all the same even the best, I suppose, [-218-] have but one way to make their peace, and would like to ask Christ to take them to himself when the hour of death comes. I sat up with him all last night, and I had my thoughts of speaking to him about making ready for the great change, but when the cough left him breath enough to speak he talked so confident like about doing this and that when he was better, and about going back again to the green, pleasant country, as he called it, that I hadn't the heart to damp him; and beside there was the wife, poor thing, to think about, and she was heart-broke enough already. She was fairly worn off her feet, and so I forced her to let me take her place for that night, but bless you, she couldn't sleep, she was that anxious about him. They've only the one room themselves, and so I wanted her to go to my bed, but she wouldn't hear of such a thing, and though, to please me, she lay down in her clothes on a bit of a bed that I got together for her on the top of a box, and closed her eyes, I knew that she was listening whenever he spoke, and that she would have heard anything I had said to him. The thought of that, and the sight of his poor worn face, made the words stick in my throat, whenever I went to tell him that he would never be better in this world, and that he should use the little time left him to prepare for the next. It would be the truest kindness to tell him the truth, though; for you may take my word that the only country place he'll ever go to in this earth is the cemetery, and that when the fields are green again the grass will be growing over his grave.
[-219-] "Do you think it would be well for me to go and see him?" I asked.
"That is just what I do think, sir,! she answered ; "it came into my mind directly I saw you coming. I thought that as I hadn't spoken myself, the least I could do was to ask somebody else to speak; it's a serious thing, a man dying, but not knowing it, and all his thoughts and talk of this world.!
"It is a serious thing," I agreed; and then, without further delay, I proceeded to the house in which the Johnsons lived. Their room was a back one on the ground floor, and Mrs. Johnson herself answered my knock. She looked very thin and wan and grief-stricken. Though little mote than thirty, trouble and want had already bowed her frame and streaked her black hair heavily with grey. She seemed much more fit to be in a sick-bed than attending on one night and day; but I felt that she would have considered this no time to have spoken of her looks of illness, and therefore I merely observed that I had heard her husband was very ill, and thought that I would look in and see him, if it would not be putting them to inconvenience.
"Oh no, sir, "she answered promptly; "you know well enough what very poor folks' homes are like, and if you don't stand on ceremony, I'm sure we needn't. George will be glad to see you, he's very dull, poor fellow, and is glad for any one to come and talk to him a bit; not as I'm saying as no one has come to see him, for our neighbours have all been very kind to us, [-220-] both in that way and other ways, God bless them all for it."
As she spoke she led the way into her room; and though, as she had said, I knew well enough what the homes of the poor were like, I was struck with the unusual sadness of the picture presented by this home. One lying in mortal sickness in it, ghastly and wasted from disease, might well make any room look gloomy, while this sick chamber was dark, dirty, and dilapidated in itself, and showed every indication of those living in it, as well as the one dying in it, being steeped in the direst poverty.
"Here is Mr. ----- come to see you, dear," said the wife, as her husband languidly turned his head towards the doorway as I entered. "Take the chair, sir," she added, in the same breath, indicating the only chair in the apartment, and at the same time seating herself on an old trunk, which, with a deal table and the bed, made up the whole furniture of the room. There were medicine bottles upon the mantelpiece, and the wife, while resuming the button-holing, kept an eye upon the making of some beef-tea that was simmering in a battered saucepan, which had been made useable by an old chair-leg having been driven tightly into a hole to serve for a handle. The sick man was propped up in bed, with a view to relieving his painfully laborious breathing. His deeply sunken eyes and cheeks, the deadly pallor of his countenance, and the cold sweat standing like dew on his forehead, showed but too conclusively to any one used [-221-] to reading such signs that he was dying. But he was dying in harness! As he lay there, he was working as busily as his ebbing strength. would allow him. Not at the button-holing as when I had first seen him, but at the less trying work of feathering or "flossing out" long bands of dress material, to form the trimming, technically known as ruching. The wife noting my look of surprise at this, hastened to explain-
"It's not with my will he's doing it, sir," she said "he's not fit to be doing anything, but he was that anxious to be doing something to earn a few ha'pence, that he made himself worse with worriting over it, and so to please him the Queen got him this ruching to do, as being the lightest thing she could think of."
"The Queen!" I exclaimed, looking at the woman in amazement.
"Yes, the Queen - our Queen," she answered, evidently surprised, in her turn, at my being surprised. "Why, you know Mrs. ----, as gives us our work," she went on, with a tinge of impatience - "the Button-hole Queen, as every one calls her hereabout; and a Queen she deserves to be as far as goodness goes. I don't know what would have become of many that work for her, if it hadn't been for the help she's given em in times of need; and I'm sure her kindness to us since George has been so ill has been more almost than you would expect from a sister, let alone a stranger - not as she'll be long a stranger to any one that is working for her regular, especially if they are in distress. There is never a morning passes that [-222-] she don't come in to see George, and she never comes without something in her hand; in fact, I thought it was her when you knocked: it's just about her time for calling."
The woman spoke with a fervency of heartfelt gratitude that any one might well have been proud to have inspired; and, catching something of her spirit, I answered that I had heard of the kindness of the lady of whom she spoke, even though I had not happened to hear that she was known as the Button-hole Queen. Then, remembering the special purpose of my visit, I turned to the man, and gently asked him how he felt.
"Weak, sir, dreadfully weak," he replied, speaking with an effort; and even then in a faint, hollow tone. "But there's not much else beside weakness the matter with me now," he went on, "I haven't anything like the pain I used to have. I only want pulling together now, as you may say; and what with the nourishment the parish allows me, and the tasty, strengthening things the Queen brings me, I hope to be on my legs before long, and then I shall soon be myself again, especially if I can manage to get down to my native place, as I shall try to do."
It was easy to see from his manner how true were the words of the kindly and thoughtful seamstress who had suggested my call. It was evident that he dreamt not of death, though its icy hand was already on him. Seeing him thus, I shrank from the task I had tacitly accepted. But reflecting how cruel a kindness it would be to leave [-223-] him undeceived, I nerved myself to enter upon it, and did in part fulfil it - but only in part. He was young; and hard as the world had been to him, little of happiness and much of suffering as he had experienced in it, the love of life was so strong in him that I scarcely had the heart to, as it were, pass sentence upon him - to tell him that he must die, that his hours were numbered, his last sands of life running out. I could only bring myself to deal in generalities, to urge that we never knew what turn a serious illness like his might take, that it was well and wise to be prepared for any turn it could take, and think of the world to come, as well as of this world. But even under this guarded talk he became painfully excited, and, with bated breath and look of haggard entreaty, asked, " Do you think I won't get better, then?"
"Your getting better or not getting better," I answered gently, and avoiding the eager glance with which he regarded me, "is in the hands of God. It may be his good will to take you from this world, and in case it should be, you should turn your mind to getting ready to go."
This was the utmost I felt justified in saying at the moment, though I hoped to be able to speak more pointedly on the occasion of a second visit, nor, greatly as he was distressed by what I had said, did I regret having spoken, for I could see that he had in a measure at any rate realised the danger he was in. I then asked him if he would let me read to him a chapter from the New Testament, choosing the 3rd of John. I explained [-224-] what was meant by coming to Christ - that whether well or ill, strong or weak, it was wise in us to do so at once. Even as I was preparing to go his excitement was visibly subsiding, and in a comparatively collected tone he asked, would I look in again, and read another chapter.
I was turning to leave the room when there came a low but firm knock at the street door, and the next minute, bearing a custard pudding in her hand, there entered a woman whom I instantly guessed to be the Button-hole Queen. I looked at her with an eagerness that I fear must have savoured more of curiosity than politeness, though she certainly showed no sign either of embarrassment or resentment. The result of my scrutiny was to give rise to a feeling of disappointment - a feeling that I was conscious was in the nature of an injustice to her, arising as it did solely from the fact that she did not realise the ideal I had formed of her. From what I had heard of her good deeds, I had imagined her a woman beaming with good nature, with soft kind eyes, an ever-smiling face, impulsive in action, bright and cheery in manner. That was the woman I had pictured to my mind's eye, but the woman now presented to my bodily vision was of a very different stamp. She was tall, and though shapely of limb awl comely of feature was somewhat masculine looking. The general impression she gave was rather that of an able and pushing woman, than of a specially good-natured one. There were touches of both sadness and sternness blending with the thoughtfulness that seemed to be the characteristic expression of [-225-] her face; the squarely cut chin and tightly closing lips told of firmness of character; and her piercing blue eyes were of the hard glittering steely-blue order, and not the deep melting blue that would have suited the sort of woman I had imagined. She looked about five-and-forty, though perhaps the circumstance of her once black hair being now for the most part iron grey caused her to appear a little older than she really was.
Giving a quiet self-assured nod by way of reply to my softly-spoken good morning, she turned to the sick man, and, in a voice that was softer and kinder in its tone than I expected, now that I had seen her, asked-
"How do you feel to-day, Johnson?"
"Weak, still very weak," he answered faintly; "but I've hardly any pain now except just when the cough takes me."
"Well, that's a deal to be thankful for," she said; "your sufferings were very great."
"They were," he replied, and it was evident from the expression that came into his face that he vas about to add something about the comparative freedom from pain being a good sign, when she hastily asked-
"What does the doctor say?"
"He doesn't say anything particular," said the wife, taking up the answer. "He just orders him nourishment, and says he may eat or drink anything that he fancies."
Turning her head for a moment the Button-hole Queen stole a glance at me - a glance which said as plainly as a [-226-] look could, I'm afraid there is no hope here, and in the same way I replied that I feared not.
While this had been going on the dying man had begun to work at the ruching again, and seeing this on turning to him, she laid her hand on his, and shaking her head said-
"You mustn't make labour of this, you know. I only got it you to amuse yourself, as you may say."
"Oh, a child might do it as far as strength goes," he answered, with a faint smile; "and after all it brings in a few ha'pence."
"Don't trouble yourself about the ha'pence, now," she said, with just a touch of authority in her tone - "that can be made right; and you, Mrs. Johnson, don't let the collars interfere with your nursing or getting a little sleep. I can always let you have the price of two or three gross in advance, and you can work it off by degrees, after - some other time. I've brought you a little custard," she went on, turning to the man again, without giving the woman time to answer: "do you think you can eat a bit of it?"
"I think I can," he answered feebly.
"Or is there anything else you fancy better?" she questioned. "An egg beat up in a drop of brandy, or anything of that sort?"
"No, thank you," he murmured, a slight smile flitting across his countenance, "the doctor's order gives me brandy, and I'd sooner have the egg in the custard."
"Very well," she said, "I'll leave you now," and then [-227-] turning to the woman, she added, "If you find you do want anything else send round; and remember you needn't distress yourself about the work for the next week or two."
I followed her out, and as soon as we were clear of the threshold, she exclaimed -
"I suppose he is dying."
"There can be no doubt of it," I answered.
"Have you told him so?"
"Well, not in so many words, but I have hinted at it in a general way."
"It's been in a too general way then, I expect," she observed in the same blunt manner, "for, so far as I could judge, his thoughts seemed no different to-day than they have done all along. They tell me it's very often so with consumptive people; they think to the very last that they'll recover, and the more so the nearer they get to the last - don't you think he ought to be told plainly?"
In reply I told her how I had been led to enter the house, and what had passed there previous to her arrival. I added that I would see the doctor in the course of the morning, and that if he confirmed my views as to the state of his patient, I would, on returning to Johnson's home later, tell him plainly how it was with him; but I confessed I really had not had the courage to tell him on first seeing him - he seemed to cling so fondly to life.
"That's how it is with me," she said, in a softer tone than she had hitherto spoken in. "I try to do my duty as far as I can in other ways, but when it comes to that [-228-] I flinch. If I hadn't met you in the house though, I would have sent a clergyman, or some one, in the course of the day." She paused for a while, and then in a musing tone went on - "Well, of course, life is sweet; but all the same it seems wonderful to see how strongly the very poor will want to live when it comes to the point. They know that they die faster than others, and when they are well they'll say there isn't much for them to live for, and when their neighbours are ill, they'll say that death'll be a happy release for them; but when death is staring them in the face, how most of 'em will fight against the idea of it! Is that your experience?" she concluded, turning her hard blue eyes upon my face.
"Not an invariable experience," I answered, "though I have seen many instances of it."
"Well, taking it at that, don't you think it strange that you should see many instances of it; - how do you account for it?"
The manner in which she emphasized the you suggested that she had views of her own upon the subject, but was desirous in the first place of hearing mine, and convinced by this time that I had fallen in with an original, I yielded to her humour.
"The point has not struck me as it seems to have done you," I said; "but speaking on the spur of the moment I think that the instinctive love of life and fear of death sufficiently account for the feeling you consider so strange, and I doubt not the feeling would be found equally among rich and poor."
[-229-] "No not equally," she exclaimed; "not so much among the rich as the poor, that's what looks to me the surprising part of it. Wouldn't you think, now, that the rich would be the most loth to leave this world?"
Again I pleaded that I had given no especial thought to the subject.
"Well, I have," she said ; "I've thought about it, and I've spoken about it to many, and doctors and others who ought to know have told me that the rich who have known all this world's goods wi1l often leave them without a sigh, while the poor who have never enjoyed the good things of this life, grieve to be taken away from its hardships. They accounted for it," she went on, "by saying that the rich had learned by experience that all is vanity, while the poor still wished to live in the hope that a share of the good things that seemed so bright at a distance, might yet fall to their lot."
"There may be something in that," I said, scarcely knowing what to say at all.
"I dare say there's a good deal in it, if you only look at the matter in a worldly light," she said; "but I look at it in another light as well, and I have quite another opinion as to the chief cause of it, so far as regards the very poor, that is."
"And what may your opinion be, then?" I asked, with something of her own bluntness.
"That they have not enough of sweet religion in their lives," she answered promptly, but gently and solemnly. "Not that I look upon them as heathenish, or would [-230-] speak hardly of them in the matter," she went on; "the Lord forbid, knowing as much as I do of their trials, and struggles, and sufferings. The flesh is weak and its cravings strong; when it is so hard a fight to supply its barest wants, things spiritual are but little thought of. To the poor seeking for bread, and not finding a sufficiency of it, I believe it does - as they often say - seem like offering them a stone to talk to them of religion as the remedy for their trouble. I don't say it as blaming them, but as grieving that it should be so. It is right to do what else we can, but if we could but give them true religion, with all its comforts and consolations, it would be the grandest thing of all - it would make them happier in their lives, and resigned, and more than resigned, when the time of death came."
"It would indeed!" I assented.
"Then death would lose its sting," she resumed, "and none would need to shrink from telling them that their hour was come. They would know then that though called to pass through the valley of the shadow of death they need fear no evil, that their Lord would be with them in their journey to his mansions in the sky. I don't mean just making them church or chapel goers," she continued, " but to put religion into their souls and lives, so that in their hardships and troubles they would then find comfort in their Saviour's love, and in the hour of death see him waiting for them beyond the beautiful river. I have known one or two who were religious in that way, and though they were wretchedly poor, oh, how [-231-] much happier they were than those around them who had not the hope and comfort that their religion gave them!"
She had been speaking in a low, earnest tone, and gazing before her in the unobservant manner of one lost in thought; but at this point turning her piercing eyes upon me again, she concluded by asking-
"Don't you think I am right? I ask you because you see more of the poor even than I do; don't you think that a want of religion - religion in its best and most comforting sense - is their greatest want?"
"Rightly considered, it is undoubtedly their greatest want," I answered; "but at the same time we should not forget that they have other wants, very pressing wants some of them, and calculated to stand in the way of their attaining to this religious feeling."
A slight smile flitted across her face, and, shaking her head, she said - "Ah, I see you think I am too enthusiastic. I do speak warmly on this subject, I know, because though I I think a deal, it is seldom I do open my mouth about it; only when such a sight as that poor dying man brings it home to me. All the same I am practical - there are not many better business women than I am, though I say it that shouldn't, and I have been no worse a business woman since I have known the happiness of true religion. I don't lose sight of the fact the poor have other wants, but the hymn tells us that -
'Religion never was designed
To make our pleasures less,'
[-232-] and I am one of those who believe that it was never designed to make us less capable of earning our daily bread. In my opinion it not only makes you more fit to live, but better able to make a living-gives you strength and comfort for this world, as well as hope for the world to come."
During this conversation we had walked out of Button-hole Row, and a little way down the main street; but as she said the last words she came to a stand-still, and merely giving a nod by way of reply to my remark, that I fully agreed with her, she pointed to the house opposite saying, "This is my place, if you step in I'll show you such a little hive as you don't see every day."
That the Button-hole Queen was a character was evident. Even in the short time I had been in her company I had seen enough of her to make me desirous of seeing more; and I promptly availed myself of her offer.
"Come along, then," she said, leading the way; and the next minute we were in the house. Truly enough I did find it such a hive as I had never seen before, and such a hive as was not to be seen every day. The apartment, that in an ordinary private house would have been the parlour, was turned into a workroom. A narrow deal workboard upon tressels extended the whole length of the room, and seated at it, I counted sixteen children, fourteen girls and two boys. The girls were busily button-holing; while the boys, both of whom I noticed were lame and sickly, kept the sewers supplied with relays of ready-threaded needles. The oldest child did [-233-]not appear to be more than twelve, and one or two of the younger were certainly not above half that age. The majority of them looked clean and comfortable, but in a few instances they were wofully ill-clad, and if one might judge by their pinched faces, wofully ill-fed also.
"Those are a young set of hands now," she said, when I had finished my survey.
"Very young," I said; "in fact too young; for, speaking without the slightest intention to reflect upon you, I think it a sad sight to see such very young children working at all."
"It is indeed a great pity," she assented, with unmistakable sincerity, "but it is the least of two evils. If they were not here they would be in worse places, poor little things; in the streets, or crouching in some miserable room for want of sufficient clothing for even a gutter child. That was the condition in which I found some of them, and of most of them I can say that their lot has been a very hard one. They are badly enough off even now, but they would be worse if it wasn't for the bit of work I give them."
"I have no doubt you employ them with a good motive," I said.
"Well, I do, though I say it," she answered ; "but understand me, it is a business affair. I am one that thinks that the best way to assist the poor is to help them to help themselves, and taking these children to work is doing that. It helps both them and their [-234-] mothers, for they are mostly widows' children. I only pay them what they earn at the usual piece-work prices, but, believe me, I wouldn't grind their young bones to make my bread; it's of their bread I think, for there isn't one of them that wouldn't sometimes be without a meal if it wasn't for the trifle they earn here. I could make more money with less trouble by having young women for my indoor hands, but for the reasons I've named, I have had children for the last two or three years. I have two sets of them - one morning, one afternoon - each set going to school the half of the day they are not at work."
"Ah, I'm glad of that!" I exclaimed; "for if the work does not prevent them from getting a little education it loses half its hardship."
"Oh, I see," she said, with a slight smile, "I ought to have mentioned this first: I see what you've been thinking, and you're right. It would be a curious friendship to keep such children at work all day, but there being half-timers here, so far from preventing them from getting a little learning, is about the only chance that most of them would ever have had. Their mothers have not been educated themselves, and don't know the value of it, and they think it hard that I should insist upon the children being sent to school; but I do - I make it a rule, 'no school, no work.' An old lady a few doors off, who keeps a school, and really brings children on in their learning, takes my large family, as I call them, on the principle of a reduction on quantity. She lets them go half-time at a [-235-] penny a week all round, and every child is stopped that penny a week, and every girl another penny for the threaders. After paying that, they'll take home from one to three shillings a week, according to their age and quickness with the needle; and, as I told you, I keep a look-out to see that they reap the benefit of it. If I notice a pair of boots very bad, or a frock too thin or yarn for the season, I just drop round and give the mother a hint, and it generally has the desired effect. I know pretty well how each family is situated, and ask the mother to do only what I know can be done by trying, and where it is necessary I advance a trifle and stop it out of the child's earnings, at threepence or sixpence a week. I would rather see the children at school all day, but, as I said, they wouldn't be at school if they were not here. My out-door hands mostly have their children helping them in their own houses, but the mothers of these young hands are often out all day charing or washing, so that this place is a sort of home to the children."
Though her manner was somewhat melancholy and at times a trifle hard, it was impossible not to admire her thoughtfulness, and it was with the utmost sincerity I remarked that it was no flattery of her to say that she was a blessing to the neighbourhood.
"Well, in a small way, I am sometimes a means of good," she answered unaffectedly; "but if those who benefit by it only knew it, it's not me but another they've got to thank."
[-236-] She spoke in a tone that courted question, and so I put in-
"May I ask who the other is?"
"I'll show you if you'll just come to my room," she answered; and as she spoke she led the way to an adjoining apartment, furnished as a sitting-room.
"There! that is the one that any I do a good turn for have to thank !" she exclaimed, pointing to an enlarged photographic portrait of a pretty-looking, gentle-faced girl, which, handsomely framed, formed the chief pictorial ornament of the room. "My daughter," the "Button-hole Queen" went on, regarding the portrait with a look of intense affection; "she's in a better place now; she was only eighteen when she died, but before she went, she taught her mother to be a Christian, and to understand what our duty towards our neighbours really meant. For her sake I will say that I am a good employer to my hands, though if it hadn't been for her I would have been a hard one, for that was my nature. Before she altered me, I was a hard one. I used to grind them down, taking advantage of their necessity. So that they worked cheaply I didn't care whether they lived or died, and if they talked much about their distresses, I took the work from them, in order that I shouldn't be bothered. Many a bruised spirit I wounded in those days; I was strong, and pushing, and successful myself, and instead of pitying those who were weak and helpless, I felt contempt for them, and showed it; but Agnes altered that, thanks to her, and with God's help I conquer myself in those [-237-] things now, and, in the strength of Jesus, try to bring them to see things in a better light."
She paused for a moment to ask me to be seated, and then, without question or remark on my part (for it was evident she was on a subject she loved to talk about), resumed "the story of her life" as the Button-hole Queen. "My husband when I married him," she went on, "was a well-to-do tradesman. His father had made the business and had just left it to him; but though as good and loving a husband as ever breathed, he was no business man. Things went bad with him, and after struggling for five years, he became bankrupt, and our very beds were sold from under us. The trouble and shock was too much for him, and he died a few months later-more of a broken heart than any bodily illness. I was left penniless, and with my little child as well as myself to look after. Under any circumstances, I wasn't the sort of woman to sit quietly down under trouble; but when I used to look at my child it gave me double courage and confidence. I said to myself that I would be both father and mother to her, and that she should want for nothing. I had a slight knowledge of the collar business, and knew a manufacturer in that line, and I asked him for work at the button-holing. He gave it me, and as I got on he gave me more, and I got some from other firms, and so worked on and on until I had that much work that in the busy season I had as many as three hundred hands working for me. I worked hard myself, and as I told you made the most I could out of my hands. I was [-238-] able to keep a nice house and to dress Agnes well, and give her a good education. I kept her at school till she was nearly sixteen. Then I apprenticed her to a West-end milliner and dressmaker, paying a large premium, meaning in time to set her up in business for herself - but it wasn't to be. She was always delicate, and sometimes when she came home on Sundays she used to look quite ill; but when I spoke to her about it she always put it off lightly. She never uttered a word about the hours she had to work. It was only when it was too late that I knew she had been worked the killing long hours that milliners' girls are worked in the season. I was aware of the frightfully long hours the paid hands had to work, but at that time I was too selfish to have a second thought about them. I was under the impression that my child being a premiumed apprentice was exempted from working such hours, as by rights she ought to have been; but her mistress was one of my own stamp; she went on the plan of grinding the most out of everybody, and so made Agnes work as long as the others. She got through the first season without breaking down, but the second was too much for her. One afternoon a cab stopped at my door; and a man - a doctor - coming out of it, told me that my daughter had been taken suddenly ill, had burst a blood-vessel, and that as she begged to be taken home, and was sufficiently recovered to bear the removal, he and one of the hands from the shop had brought her. I was at the cab before he had well finished speaking, and there my poor Agnes lay back, [-239-] propped up with pillows, and with a face as white as death, except one or two spots where it had been flecked with her own blood. She smiled when she saw me, and then we carried her in; and when the others were gone she clung round my neck, and, laying her pretty face on my shoulder, whispered, 'Mother, my own mother, I've come home to die!' - and she had, though see lingered for three months.
While speaking, she had striven hard to suppress all outward signs of emotion, but her feelings proved too much for her. At this point her voice failed her, and tears gathered in her eyes. It was but for a minute's space, however; recovering herself by an effort, she went on: "I had always kept her regularly at Sunday-school and church; and with her the seed had fallen in good ground. She had been led to remember her Creator in the days of her youth, had come to feel happy in her Saviour's love while yet a child; and so when, at an age at which the world is generally dear to us, the hand of death was laid upon her, she did not fear to go. Sometimes when she would notice that I was more downhearted than usual, she'd say in her sweet way, Don't fret, mother, I would like to have stayed with you a little longer, for I know you'll feel lonely when I'm gone, but remember, I shall only be gone before. You know what the dear old hymn says
'Here we suffer grief and pain,
Here we meet to part again,
In heaven we part more.'"
[-240-] That is how she would talk: and one day, among other things, she said, 'Perhaps it is all for the best, mother; this is a hard world, and though, thanks to you, I've been very comfortable and happy in it so far, if I was left after you, I might be in great misery. Look at your hands, what hardship some of them must have to endure.' She was getting very weak at this time, and when she had said so much, she lay back exhausted, but after a while she opened her eyes again, and with a pleading look in my face, said gently, 'Be kind to your hands; mother.' Kind to them! I said; 'I always pay them what they earn. I don't see what more I can do. I suppose I give them about as much as others; and in any case I don't well see how I'm to give them more without robbing myself; you know how badly the work is paid first hand.' 'It wasn't altogether about the pay I was thinking,' she made answer; 'a kind word to them or a little thoughtfulness for them may sometimes give strength and comfort to those who are broken in spirits. And remember, mother, how our dear Saviour did for the poor people when He was here on earth. Our works can never save us; but Christ accepts our service, and helps us to serve Him more and more.' Once or twice afterwards she spoke in the same strain; but it was not till the morning of the day on which she died, that she fairly conquered me. It was very near the end, and she could only speak with great effort, and in whispers; but getting her arms round my neck, and looking straight into my eyes, as her own were growing dim, she said [-241-] earnestly, 'You will have thought for your hands, mother, and be good to them; now, won't you, for my sake? I shall go all the happier if you do, and you will feel all the happier, and be none the poorer; you will promise me now, won't you?' I couldn't speak the promise, my heart was too full, but I looked it, and with the Saviour's help I have tried to keep it. She understood me, and sank back, with a smile on her face; and all that she ever said after was a few words of prayer, and 'Good-bye, mother, we'll meet again in heaven!'
Again the emotion of the Button-hole Queen was too much for her, again utterance failed her, and this time the tears rolled down her cheeks unchecked. Her grief was not violent or bitter, the memories that evoked it had much in them that was sweet and comforting; and so I remained silent until she was once more sufficiently composed to speak. When she had dried her eyes, she quietly resumed her narrative.
"When I was left alone I became more civil with my hands, and kinder, as far as words went; but it was not till one Saturday night about two months after my child's death that any real good came of the lesson she had impressed upon me. I had had a hard, worriting day, and was in an irritable state of mind, when my servant girl came to tell me that a woman I had given work to for the first time that week, had come to ask if I would pay her for the collars she had sent in up till then. My plan with my hands was to give the work out three gross at a time, and pay when it was all brought in, but this [-242-] woman had not sent in quite one gross, and my promise to my dead child not being in my mind at the moment, I said to the girl, 'Tell her I can't be bothered, I'll pay her as I pay my other hands, when she sends the batch of work in; and if she doesn't like that, she can give up the work altogether.' The girl took the message, and the woman went away. I thought no more about it; but going out directly afterwards, and walking sharp, I passed the woman in the street, and as I passed, I caught a sound that told me she was crying bitterly; then my promise flashed on my mind and pricked my conscience. I spoke to the poor thing, and as well as her sobs would let her she told me her story. She was a widow with three young children. She was wholly dependent upon herself, and was not strong; one of the children was sick, the other two were hungry, and she had no food in the house; and made desperate by her position, she had come to me to try and get money wherewith to obtain a little medicine for the one child, and a little bread for the others. I thought of my daughter's words, 'Be good to your hands for my sake,' and I acted at once. Could she describe her child's illness? I asked, and she answered that she could. When she had done that, I said, 'Very well then, come along,' and we turned into a chemist's and got some medicine, and as we went further we bought food, so that when we got to her house we were not empty-handed. She had spoken but too truly! The children were actually starving, and I shall never forget the look that came into their faces as their [-243-] eyes fell on the eatables - for at that time I had never seen such looks before, though, more's the pity, I've seen the like often since. I made her eat a bit herself too, and giving her a trifle of money, and promising to send her some of my Agnes's clothes to make down for her little girls, I left her, she following me to the door, and, with tears in her eyes, and her heart that full that she could hardly speak, crying out, 'God bless you and reward you for your kindness to me and mine!' For the first time I felt the happiness to ourselves of being the instruments of good to others."
I went home all of a glow, and feeling as if I could help every poor person there was if I had only the means, but by the next morning this had worn off a good deal. Thinking things over, I got saying to myself what a helpless, spiritless sort of creature she must be, and in fact I worked myself quite into a state of indignation at the idea - as I put it - of a lot of women moaning and groaning when they should be making a push; and letting trouble overcome them when they should be buckling to to overcome it. I had been left without a penny, I argued, and I had got on, why couldn't others do the same? Those were the notions that had always been in my mind before Agnes's illness, and they now came back as strongly as ever; but I am glad to think it was for the last time. In the afternoon, reading my Bible, and thinking of my child, better thoughts came back to me. The cruelty and thanklessness of my old ideas was borne in upon me, and I saw that it would have been much more [-244-] fitting for me to have been on my knees humbly and gratefully thanking God for all his goodness to me, than indulging in hard thoughts against those who had not been blessed with the same good health, and ability, and good fortune that had enabled me to make a decent living. At the same time the sound of that poor woman's 'God bless you!' sounded in my ears again and made me feel happy. Then I did sink on my knees, and from the bottom of my heart did thank God for all his mercies to me, and prayed that He would give me strength and grace to carry out my promise to my child, in practice and spirit; and since that time I have striven to fulfil the promise."
"And you have striven successfully," I put in. "The poor bless you."
"They, poor creatures, are grateful for very little, sir," she said after a pause, "for even a word of kindness or sympathy, and in the way that seems best to me, I do what I can, and though that is but little, I'm glad it does bring me the good wishes of the poor, for I believe those wishes do bring a blessing with them. Since I have come to live in the same neighbourhood as my hands, and to have a little Christian regard for them, health nor strength have never failed me, and work has never been slack, and I believe I am quite as well off as I should have been had I continued to act in the old fashion, and I know I am much more happy and contented."
"I can fully believe that," I said.
"Understand me, sir," she resumed, "I am saying all [-245-] this because I love to speak of the dear child whose portrait you see. I do not speak as boasting of any little good I may be the means of doing; the Lord - who enables me to do it - forbid that I should. Looking at myself as an instrument in the matter," she continued, "I often ask myself very anxiously whether I am doing the best in my power."
"Your experience should be a good guide on that point," I said.
"Well, it is by that I go," she said. "To a stranger the best way of helping my hands might seem to be to give them a higher price for their work; but as I already give them the highest rate of pay in the trade, that doesn't lie with me except to a very limited extent, the little more that it would be possible for me to give if I only left myself a bare living, if added to the little all they get now would still not make up enough for a decent living; all would go then as it goes now, for the common necessaries of life, and when sickness or any emergency arose they would still be without anything to fall back upon, while I then would not be able to help them. That is why I mostly reserve what help I can give for special occasions. It's being cruel to be kind, as the sayin' is; seeing them half-starved every day, in order to save them from being wholly starved in the day of trouble."
"I think your hands are as much indebted to your good judgment as they are to your kindness," I said, filling up a pause.
"I hope so," she said simply, with no shade of boast-[-246-]ing in her tone, "for I do try to be thoughtful for them. I know, too," she added, "that I am only one - and a very humble one - among many who do take thought for the poverty-stricken; but for all that is done for them in the way of kindness, the lot of the very poor is a terribly hard one in this world, and that is why I say that the consolation and comfort that lies in religion would be such a blessed thing to them - speaking of that, you won't forget to see Johnson again?"
The last words were uttered in a tone that sufficiently indicated the view of the speaker, that the conversation having come back to the point from which it had started, might as well end. Tacitly accepting this view, I took my leave of the Button-hole Queen, simply remarking that I would see Johnson again. I did see him a few hours afterwards, and as gently as I could discharged the painful duty with which I had charged myself - read the Scriptures to him, which calmed him wonderfully, and told him how Christ had borne all our sins on the tree, so that our sufferings might be lightened and our souls drawn to Him. It was well for the poor fellow that such duty was discharged towards him, as two days later he died - I have reason to hope in peace.
A good deal might be said in the way of moralising about the Button-hole Queen, her ways and opinions, but I think readers may be safely left to draw their own moral.