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Heartsease by Jacob A. Riis


In a mean street, over on the West Side, I came across a doorway that bore upon its plate the word “Heartsease.” The house was as mean as the street. It was flanked on one side by a jail, on the other by a big stable barrack. In front, right under the windows, ran the elevated trains, so close that to open the windows was impossible, for the noise and dirt. Back of it they were putting up a building which, when completed, would hug the rear wall so that you couldn't open the windows there at all.

After nightfall you would have found in that house two frail little women. One of them taught school by day in the outlying districts of the city, miles and miles away, across the East River. By night she came there to sleep, and to be near her neighbors.

And who were these neighbors? Drunken, dissolute women, vile brothels and viler saloons, for the saloon trafficked in the vice of the other. Those who lived there were Northfield graduates, girls of refinement and modesty. Yet these were the neighbors they had chosen for their own. At all hours of the night the bell would ring, and they would come, sometimes attended by policemen. Said one of these:

“We have this case. She isn't wanted in this home, or in that institution. She doesn't come under their rules. We thought you might stretch yours to take her in. Else she goes straight to the devil.”

Yes! that was what he said. And she: “Bless you; we have no rules. Let her come in.” And she took her and put her to bed.

In the midnight hour my friend of Heartsease hears of a young girl, evidently a new-comer, whom the brothel or the saloon has in its clutch, and she gets out of bed, and, going after her, demands her sister, and gets her out from the very jaws of hell. Again, on a winter's night, a drunken woman finds her way to her door—a married woman with a husband and children. And she gets out of her warm bed again, and, when the other is herself, takes her home, never leaving her till she is safe.

I found her papering the walls and painting the floor in her room. I said to her that I did not think you could do anything with those women,—and neither can you, if they are just “those women” to you. Jesus could. One came and sat at his feet and wept, and dried them with her hair.

“Oh,” said she, “it isn't so! They come, and are glad to stay. I don't know that they are finally saved, that they never fall again. But here, anyhow, we have given them a resting spell and time to think. And plenty turn good.”

She told me of a girl brought in by her brother as incorrigible. No one knew what to do with her. She stayed in that atmosphere of affection three months, and went forth to service. That was nearly half a year before, and she had “stayed good.” A chorus girl lived twelve years with a man, who then cast her off. Heartsease sent her out a domestic, at ten dollars a month, and she, too, “stayed good.”

“I don't consider,” said the woman of Heartsease, simply, “that we are doing it right, but we will yet.”

I looked at her, the frail girl with this unshaken, unshakable faith in the right, and asked her, not where she got her faith—I knew that—but where she got the money to run the house. Alas, for poor human nature that will not accept the promise that “all these things shall be added unto you!” She laughed.

“The rent is pledged by half a dozen friends. The rest—comes.”

“But how?”

She pointed to a lot of circulars, painfully written out in the night watches.

“We are selling soap just now,” she said; “but it is not always soap. Here,” patting a chair, “this is Larkin's soap; that chafing-dish is green stamps; this set of dishes is Mother's Oats. We write to the people, you see, and they buy the things, and we get the prizes. We've furnished the house in that way. And some give us money. A man offered to give an entertainment, promising to give us $450 of the receipts. And then the Charity Organization Society warned us against him, and we had to give up the $450,” with a sigh. But she brightened up in a moment: “The very next day we got $1000 for our building fund. We shall have to move some day.”

The elevated train swept by the window with rattle and roar. You could have touched it, so close did it run. “I won't let it worry me,” she said, with her brave little smile.

I listened to the crash of the vanishing train, and looked at the mean surroundings, and my thoughts wandered to the great school in the Massachusetts hills—her school—which I had passed only the day before. It lay there beautiful in the spring sunlight. But something better than its sunlight and its green hills had come down here to bear witness to the faith which the founder of Northfield preached all his life,—this woman who was a neighbor.

I forgot to ask in what special church fold she belonged. It didn't seem to matter. I know that my friend, Sister Irene, who picked the outcast waifs from the gutter where they perished till she came, was a Roman Catholic, and that they both had sat at the feet of Him who is all compassion, and had learned the answer there to the question that awaits us at the end of our journey:

  “'I showed men God,' my Lord will say,
  'As I traveled along the King's highway.
    I eased the sister's troubled mind;
    I helped the blighted to be resigned;
    I showed the sky to the souls grown blind.
  And what did you?' my Lord will say,
  When we meet at the end of the King's highway.”


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