What Diantha Did

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Chapter X - Union House

“We are weak!” said the Sticks, and men broke them;
      “We are weak!” said the Threads, and were torn;
     Till new thoughts came and they spoke them;
      Till the Fagot and the Rope were born.

    For the Fagot men find is resistant,
     And they anchor on the Rope's taut length;
      Even grasshoppers combined,
      Are a force, the farmers find—
     In union there is strength.

Ross Warden endured his grocery business; strove with it, toiled at it, concentrated his scientific mind on alien tasks of financial calculation and practical psychology, but he liked it no better. He had no interest in business, no desire to make money, no skill in salesmanship.

But there were five mouths at home; sweet affectionate feminine mouths no doubt, but requiring food. Also two in the kitchen, wider, and requiring more food. And there were five backs at home to be covered, to use the absurd metaphor—as if all one needed for clothing was a four foot patch. The amount and quality of the covering was an unceasing surprise to Ross, and he did not do justice to the fact that his womenfolk really saved a good deal by doing their own sewing.

In his heart he longed always to be free of the whole hated load of tradesmanship. Continually his thoughts went back to the hope of selling out the business and buying a ranch.

“I could make it keep us, anyhow,” he would plan to himself; “and I could get at that guinea pig idea. Or maybe hens would do.” He had a theory of his own, or a personal test of his own, rather, which he wished to apply to a well known theory. It would take some years to work it out, and a great many fine pigs, and be of no possible value financially. “I'll do it sometime,” he always concluded; which was cold comfort.

His real grief at losing the companionship of the girl he loved, was made more bitter by a total lack of sympathy with her aims, even if she achieved them—in which he had no confidence. He had no power to change his course, and tried not to be unpleasant about it, but he had to express his feelings now and then.

“Are you coming back to me?” he wrote. “How con you bear to give so much pain to everyone who loves you? Is your wonderful salary worth more to you than being here with your mother—with me? How can you say you love me—and ruin both our lives like this? I cannot come to see you—I would not come to see you—calling at the back door! Finding the girl I love in a cap and apron! Can you not see it is wrong, utterly wrong, all this mad escapade of yours? Suppose you do make a thousand dollars a year—I shall never touch your money—you know that. I cannot even offer you a home, except with my family, and I know how you feel about that; I do not blame you.

“But I am as stubborn as you are, dear girl; I will not live on my wife's money—you will not live in my mother's house—and we are drifting apart. It is not that I care less for you dear, or at all for anyone else, but this is slow death—that's all.”

Mrs. Warden wrote now and then and expatiated on the sufferings of her son, and his failing strength under the unnatural strain, till Diantha grew to dread her letters more than any pain she knew. Fortunately they came seldom.

Her own family was much impressed by the thousand dollars, and found the occupation of housekeeper a long way more tolerable than that of house-maid, a distinction which made Diantha smile rather bitterly. Even her father wrote to her once, suggesting that if she chose to invest her salary according to his advice he could double it for her in a year, maybe treble it, in Belgian hares.

“They'd double and treble fast enough!” she admitted to herself; but she wrote as pleasant a letter as she could, declining his proposition.

Her mother seemed stronger, and became more sympathetic as the months passed. Large affairs always appealed to her more than small ones, and she offered valuable suggestions as to the account keeping of the big house. They all assumed that she was permanently settled in this well paid position, and she made no confidences. But all summer long she planned and read and studied out her progressive schemes, and strengthened her hold among the working women.

Laundress after laundress she studied personally and tested professionally, finding a general level of mediocrity, till finally she hit upon a melancholy Dane—a big rawboned red-faced woman—whose husband had been a miller, but was hurt about the head so that he was no longer able to earn his living. The huge fellow was docile, quiet, and endlessly strong, but needed constant supervision.

“He'll do anything you tell him, Miss, and do it well; but then he'll sit and dream about it—I can't leave him at all. But he'll take the clothes if I give him a paper with directions, and come right back.” Poor Mrs. Thorald wiped her eyes, and went on with her swift ironing.

Diantha offered her the position of laundress at Union House, with two rooms for their own, over the laundry. “There'll be work for him, too,” she said. “We need a man there. He can do a deal of the heavier work—be porter you know. I can't offer him very much, but it will help some.”

Mrs. Thorald accepted for both, and considered Diantha as a special providence.

There was to be cook, and two capable second maids. The work of the house must be done thoroughly well, Diantha determined; “and the food's got to be good—or the girls wont stay.” After much consideration she selected one Julianna, a “person of color,” for her kitchen: not the jovial and sloppy personage usually figuring in this character, but a tall, angular, and somewhat cynical woman, a misanthrope in fact, with a small son. For men she had no respect whatever, but conceded a grudging admiration to Mr. Thorald as “the usefullest biddablest male person” she had ever seen. She also extended special sympathy to Mrs. Thorald on account of her peculiar burden, and the Swedish woman had no antipathy to her color, and seemed to take a melancholy pleasure in Julianna's caustic speeches.

Diantha offered her the place, boy and all. “He can be 'bell boy' and help you in the kitchen, too. Can't you, Hector?” Hector rolled large adoring eyes at her, but said nothing. His mother accepted the proposition, but without enthusiasm. “I can't keep no eye on him, Miss, if I'm cookin' an less'n you keep your eye on him they's no work to be got out'n any kind o' boy.”

“What is your last name, Julianna?” Diantha asked her.

“I suppose, as a matter o' fac' its de name of de last nigger I married,” she replied. “Dere was several of 'em, all havin' different names, and to tell you de truf Mis' Bell, I got clean mixed amongst 'em. But Julianna's my name—world without end amen.”

So Diantha had to waive her theories about the surnames of servants in this case.

“Did they all die?” she asked with polite sympathy.

“No'm, dey didn't none of 'em die—worse luck.”

“I'm afraid you have seen much trouble, Julianna,” she continued sympathetically; “They deserted you, I suppose?”

Julianna laid her long spoon upon the table and stood up with great gravity. “No'm,” she said again, “dey didn't none of 'em desert me on no occasion. I divorced 'em.”

Marital difficulties in bulk were beyond Diantha's comprehension, and she dropped the subject.

Union House opened in the autumn. The vanished pepper trees were dim with dust in Orchardina streets as the long rainless summer drew to a close; but the social atmosphere fairly sparkled with new interest. Those who had not been away chattered eagerly with those who had, and both with the incoming tide of winter visitors.

“That girl of Mrs. Porne's has started her housekeeping shop!”

“That 'Miss Bell' has got Mrs. Weatherstone fairly infatuated with her crazy schemes.”

“Do you know that Bell girl has actually taken Union House? Going to make a Girl's Club of it!”

“Did you ever hear of such a thing! Diantha Bell's really going to try to run her absurd undertaking right here in Orchardina!”

They did not know that the young captain of industry had deliberately chosen Orchardina as her starting point on account of the special conditions. The even climate was favorable to “going out by the day,” or the delivery of meals, the number of wealthy residents gave opportunity for catering on a large scale; the crowding tourists and health seekers made a market for all manner of transient service and cooked food, and the constant lack of sufficient or capable servants forced the people into an unwilling consideration of any plan of domestic assistance.

In a year's deliberate effort Diantha had acquainted herself with the rank and file of the town's housemaids and day workers, and picked her assistants carefully. She had studied the local conditions thoroughly, and knew her ground. A big faded building that used to be “the Hotel” in Orchardina's infant days, standing, awkward and dingy on a site too valuable for a house lot and not yet saleable as a business block, was the working base.

A half year with Mrs. Weatherstone gave her $500 in cash, besides the $100 she had saved at Mrs. Porne's; and Mrs. Weatherstone's cheerfully offered backing gave her credit.

“I hate to let you,” said Diantha, “I want to do it all myself.”

“You are a painfully perfect person, Miss Bell,” said her last employer, pleasantly, “but you have ceased to be my housekeeper and I hope you will continue to be my friend. As a friend I claim the privilege of being disagreeable. If you have a fault it is conceit. Immovable Colossal Conceit! And Obstinacy!”

“Is that all?” asked Diantha.

“It's all I've found—so far,” gaily retorted Mrs. Weatherstone. “Don't you see, child, that you can't afford to wait? You have reasons for hastening, you know. I don't doubt you could, in a series of years, work up this business all stark alone. I have every confidence in those qualities I have mentioned! But what's the use? You'll need credit for groceries and furniture. I am profoundly interested in this business. I am more than willing to advance a little capital, or to ensure your credit. A man would have sense enough to take me up at once.”

“I believe you are right,” Diantha reluctantly agreed. “And you shan't lose by it!”

Her friends were acutely interested in her progress, and showed it in practical ways. The New Woman's Club furnished five families of patrons for the regular service of cooked food, which soon grew, with satisfaction, to a dozen or so, varying from time to time. The many families with invalids, and lonely invalids without families, were glad to avail themselves of the special delicacies furnished at Union House. Picnickers found it easier to buy Diantha's marvelous sandwiches than to spend golden morning hours in putting up inferior ones at home; and many who cooked for themselves, or kept servants, were glad to profit by this outside source on Sunday evenings and “days out.”

There was opposition too; both the natural resistance of inertia and prejudice, and the active malignity of Mrs. Thaddler.

The Pornes were sympathetic and anxious.

“That place'll cost her all of $10,000 a year, with those twenty-five to feed, and they only pay $4.50 a week—I know that!” said Mr. Porne.

“It does look impossible,” his wife agreed, “but such is my faith in Diantha Bell I'd back her against Rockefeller!”

Mrs. Weatherstone was not alarmed at all. “If she should fail—which I don't for a moment expect—it wont ruin me,” she told Isabel. “And if she succeeds, as I firmly believe she will, why, I'd be willing to risk almost anything to prove Mrs. Thaddler in the wrong.”

Mrs. Thaddler was making herself rather disagreeable. She used what power she had to cry down the undertaking, and was so actively malevolent that her husband was moved to covert opposition. He never argued with his wife—she was easily ahead of him in that art, and, if it came to recriminations, had certain controvertible charges to make against him, which mode him angrily silent. He was convinced in a dim way that her ruthless domineering spirit, and the sheer malice she often showed, were more evil things than his own bad habits; and that even in their domestic relation her behavior really caused him more pain and discomfort than he caused her; but he could not convince her of it, naturally.

“That Diantha Bell is a fine girl,” he said to himself. “A damn fine girl, and as straight as a string!”

There had crept out, through the quenchless leak of servants talk, a varicolored version of the incident of Mathew and the transom; and the town had grown so warm for that young gentleman that he had gone to Alaska suddenly, to cool off, as it were. His Grandmother, finding Mrs. Thaddler invincible with this new weapon, and what she had so long regarded as her home now visibly Mrs. Weatherstone's, had retired in regal dignity to her old Philadelphia establishment, where she upheld the standard of decorum against the weakening habits of a deteriorated world, for many years.

As Mr. Thaddler thought of this sweeping victory, he chuckled for the hundredth time. “She ought to make good, and she will. Something's got to be done about it,” said he.

Diantha had never liked Mr. Thaddler; she did not like that kind of man in general, nor his manner toward her in particular. Moreover he was the husband of Mrs. Thaddler. She did not know that he was still the largest owner in the town's best grocery store, and when that store offered her special terms for her exclusive trade, she accepted the proposition thankfully.

She told Ross about it, as a matter well within his knowledge, if not his liking, and he was mildly interested. “I am much alarmed at this new venture,” he wrote, “but you must get your experience. I wish I could save you. As to the groceries, those are wholesale rates, nearly; they'll make enough on it. Yours is a large order you see, and steady.”

When she opened her “Business Men's Lunch” Mr. Thaddler had a still better opportunity. He had a reputation as a high flyer, and had really intended to sacrifice himself on the altar of friendship by patronizing and praising this “undertaking” at any cost to his palate; but no sacrifice was needed.

Diantha's group of day workers had their early breakfast and departed, taking each her neat lunch-pail,—they ate nothing of their employers;—and both kitchen and dining room would have stood idle till supper time. But the young manager knew she must work her plant for all it was worth, and speedily opened the dining room with the side entrance as a “Caffeteria,” with the larger one as a sort of meeting place; papers and magazines on the tables.

From the counter you took what you liked, and seated yourself, and your friends, at one of the many small tables or in the flat-armed chairs in the big room, or on the broad piazza; and as this gave good food, cheapness, a chance for a comfortable seat and talk and a smoke, if one had time, it was largely patronized.

Mr. Thaddler, as an experienced bon vivant, despised sandwiches. “Picnicky makeshifts” he called them,—“railroad rations”—“bread and leavings,” and when he saw these piles on piles of sandwiches, listed only as “No. 1,” “No. 2” “No. 3,” and so on, his benevolent intention wavered. But he pulled himself together and took a plateful, assorted.

“Come on, Porne,” he said, “we'll play it's a Sunday school picnic,” and he drew himself a cup of coffee, finding hot milk, cream and sugar crystals at hand. “I never saw a cheap joint where you could fix it yourself, before,” he said,—and suspiciously tasted the mixture.

“By jing! That's coffee!” he cried in surprise. “There's no scum on the milk, and the cream's cream! Five cents! She won't get rich on this.”

Then he applied himself to his “No. 1” sandwich, and his determined expression gave way to one of pleasure. “Why that's bread—real bread! I believe she made it herself!”

She did in truth,—she and Julianna with Hector as general assistant. The big oven was filled several times every morning: the fresh rolls disappeared at breakfast and supper, the fresh bread was packed in the lunch pails, and the stale bread was even now melting away in large bites behind the smiling mouths and mustaches of many men. Perfect bread, excellent butter, and “What's the filling I'd like to know?” More than one inquiring-minded patron split his sandwich to add sight to taste, but few could be sure of the flavorsome contents, fatless, gritless, smooth and even, covering the entire surface, the last mouthful as perfect as the first. Some were familiar, some new, all were delicious.

The six sandwiches were five cents, the cup of coffee five, and the little “drop cakes,” sweet and spicy, were two for five. Every man spent fifteen cents, some of them more; and many took away small cakes in paper bags, if there were any left.

“I don't see how you can do it, and make a profit,” urged Mr. Eltwood, making a pastorial call. “They are so good you know!”

Diantha smiled cheerfully. “That's because all your ideas are based on what we call 'domestic economy,' which is domestic waste. I buy in large quantities at wholesale rates, and my cook with her little helper, the two maids, and my own share of the work, of course, provides for the lot. Of course one has to know how.”

“Whenever did you find—or did you create?—those heavenly sandwiches?” he asked.

“I have to thank my laundress for part of that success,” she said. “She's a Dane, and it appears that the Danes are so fond of sandwiches that, in large establishments, they have a 'sandwich kitchen' to prepare them. It is quite a bit of work, but they are good and inexpensive. There is no limit to the variety.”

As a matter of fact this lunch business paid well, and led to larger things.

The girl's methods were simple and so organized as to make one hand wash the other. Her house had some twenty-odd bedrooms, full accommodations for kitchen and laundry work on a large scale, big dining, dancing, and reception rooms, and broad shady piazzas on the sides. Its position on a corner near the business part of the little city, and at the foot of the hill crowned with so many millionaires and near millionaires as could get land there, offered many advantages, and every one was taken.

The main part of the undertaking was a House Worker's Union; a group of thirty girls, picked and trained. These, previously working out as servants, had received six dollars a week “and found.” They now worked an agreed number of hours, were paid on a basis by the hour or day, and “found” themselves. Each had her own room, and the broad porches and ball room were theirs, except when engaged for dances and meetings of one sort and another.

It was a stirring year's work, hard but exciting, and the only difficulty which really worried Diantha was the same that worried the average housewife—the accounts.

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