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 doora 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
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 faithI knew
thatbut 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 restcomes.
She pointed to a lot of circulars, painfully written out in the
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 hillsher schoolwhich 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.