Her right shoe was nearly worn out. Neither was new when she came to Lowell last summer — Mother couldn’t afford new shoes for her, not with the farm in the state it was. Her cousin had outgrown them the year before, but they still had some wear, and there was room yet for her to grow into them. Dolly pretended that they were new when Father brought them to her, all blacked and shiny like beetles.
months of mill work took the shine right out of them, and a daily walk to
work left most of the black on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts. The awkward angle of her right ankle and the
twisting shuffle let the sole of that shoe scrape along the ground. It hurt to walk, but she was used to that by
now. The painful hardness at her heel
was her freedom, after all, and it gave her comfort even when it tripped her
and sent her sprawling into the February snow. Especially then.
turned a corner, and there was the boarding house, squarely at the end of the lane
like a framed picture. One of the older
girls, wrapped in a warm wool cloak, emerged from the milliner’s on the
corner. It was Lydia, with her
long black hair and tilted nose. She
could afford such luxuries; she got to keep her salary.
Her eyes brushed past Dolly without any flash of recognition, even though they had eaten every meal together for months now. And who could forget Dolly, the youngest girl in the boarding house, the cripple? Lydia swept up the street. Dolly watched her rapid and stately progress with envy.
“Dolly! Dolly Hobbles!” A group of village boys were playing in an alley, and they spotted her. She kept her eyes ahead, fixed on the boarding house and its crumbling brick façade. If she could make it to the gate, Arabella would chase them away. Arabella didn’t like children.
“Where are you going so fast?” another of the boys called.
“Can I have a kiss?”
“Want to dance?”
“Hobble hobble hobbles!”
Lydia was far in the distance now, not that she would have helped. Better to stay unnoticed. Dolly had almost blocked out the taunts, which she was used to, when the snowball slammed into her bare head.
The impact was slight, but her foot slipped and she went down into the street, skidding a few feet on the ice. The street was frozen mud, and there were sharp edges where wheel ruts had hardened into jagged, miniature mountain ranges.
Before she could get up, another missile hit her side, and this one had more ice than snow. She struggled to her feet, favoring her good leg, and broke out in a painful run. The street children howled with glee, and several more icy projectiles whizzed past her head. Another chunk struck her back, but she didn’t slow. Tendrils of fire shot up her leg, and she stumbled more than once.
She reached the front door and tore it open. Her right foot caught on the sill, and she spilled into the entryway, leaving her shoe behind.
“Miss Hodges? In winter, we dine promptly at six.” Arabella towered above her, stick thin on top, billowing skirts beneath, like a broom in a gingham dress.
“We are ladies here. We do not run.” Her voice grew colder. “You least of all.”
Dolly scrambled up, managing a curtsy on the way. Her right shoe was gone! It took all her willpower not to fall back to the floor to look for it. She kept her eyes at the level of Arabella’s knees.
After a moment, the older woman sniffed. “Get yourself presentable before dinner.” She levied an admonitory finger. “Miss Cummings will hear about this!”
That was all right. Miss Cummings had always been kind to her, a smile always lurking on her round, ruddy face. She had been a friend of Mother’s, after all. Under Arabella’s stern gaze, she snatched up her shoe and climbed, as best she could, up to her room.
Miss Cummings hoisted herself up the rickety stairs. She rarely visited the dormitories; it was Arabella’s task to keep discipline. Shrill and whip-thin, Arabella could silence a room with one cracking reprimand. But some issues needed a more personal, caring touch.
With a final heave, Miss Cummings stood panting on the landing and pulled her shawl a little tighter about her shoulders. Winter was insistent in Lowell, an elderly gentleman caller, coming too early and overstaying his welcome with loud stories no one wanted to hear. The upper floors of the house were particularly susceptible to his bellowing.
She paused to catch her breath, and to listen for sobbing above the whistling wind. Both were all too familiar. The girl should be at dinner with the others. Miss Cummings liked to keep her little family together, and it was past time to do something. She entered the bedroom.
It was small, on the back of the house where the wooden wallboards lacked the protection of brick and mortar. Three beds stood in a row, pushed close as if they too clustered for warmth. From behind the last sprang a flickering candle, a mass of straggly hair, and the skinny form of Dolly Hobbles.
“Peace, child.” Miss Cummings eased herself between bed and weathered wardrobe. “I’m not Miss Arabella come to scold.”
“No, ma’am.” Dolly’s tears ceased, leaving behind milky trails on her cheeks. Why, the girl hadn’t even washed the cotton dust from her face after work! She stood upright, hands clasped, head bowed. A few clumps of dirty snow still clung to her skirts
Miss Cummings lowered herself onto the middle bed. “You’re missing dinner, Dolly.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Her eyes never left the floor. They darted back and forth, searching.
Very well, if that was the way of it. Miss Cummings was more than capable of supplying both sides of conversation when necessary. “I suppose you’re still missing your mother. How long since you left the farm?”
“It was June, ma’am. After the planting.”
“My, eight months you’ve been with us.” Miss Cummings remembered that evening, warm and muggy, when Dolly arrived in her mother’s arms. She soon learned why a child of eight or nine hadn’t been walking—a lameness in her right leg. It seemed a cruel trick for fate to play on her old friend Daphne Suggs. She had been so happy when she met that Timothy Hodges and moved to his farm. A pity that her daughter should be a cripple.
Dolly Hobbles. The other children could be cruel in their names. Miss Cummings didn’t approve. She liked her little family to be happy, too.
“I knew your mother before, you know.”
“But did you know we were mill girls together?” Dolly glanced up in surprise. “Yes, dear, even me. Sit.”
She did so, eyes falling to scan the floor even as she sat where directed. A gust slammed against the house, straight off the river where the winds were coldest. Both shivered. “Yes indeed. Daphne — your ma — she was lovely girl, and a hard worker. Do you know she once tended five machines when our dear friend Ellie had the kine pox? And me struggling with three.”
“Did you work for Mr. Jenkins too?” Dolly’s attention was off the floor, now.
“It was the elder Mr. Jenkins in those days. Our Mr. Jenkins is his son. Took over for his father after marrying Miss Ellie. Mrs. Jenkins, I should say.” After long practice, Miss Cummings had little difficulty in keeping the bitterness out of her voice. “I still work for Mr. Jenkins, keeping the boarding house for you girls. And making sure you eat your dinner!”
She patted Dolly’s leg, but it jerked away at her touch. There was hardly any flesh at all between skirt and bone. Miss Cummings noticed that her right foot was bare. “Dolly, where is your shoe?”
The child colored, bright even in the candlelight. “It was scuffed, ma’am.”
“Scuffed! So are my shoes scuffed! You’ll catch your death.” Hastily, Dolly darted behind the bed and grabbed shoe and sock. She moved more quickly than Miss Cummings would have credited, showing no lameness at all.
“Dolly — what were you looking for behind the bed when I came in?” The girl stiffened, her gray, square-toed stocking halfway up her calf. Miss Cummings made herself sound stern. “Dolly—”
She expected a flat denial, not a renewal of tears. “Mama said I was not to tell! ‘Never show it to a living soul,’ she said. ‘Even Miss Cummings,’ she said. And I haven’t neither!”
“You haven’t either,” Miss Cummings corrected by rote.
Dolly didn’t seem to hear. “And now I’ve lost it! I hate it here, and I was going to leave when spring came, and now—” The words trailed off into more weeping. The girl leaned forward into a hug which Miss Cummings gravely returned.
“I know it’s hard, dear, being the littlest. You really are very young. But do you know why I took you in?” Dolly shook her head, still weeping. “I suppose you’re old enough to tell. Your mill wage goes back home to your family. They’d lose the farm, else. Were it not for you, well—” Miss Cummings shook her head. “Your mother trusted me with you. She asked me to take you as a personal favor.”
With one pudgy finger, she lifted Dolly’s chin. “Now, you trust me too.”
And she did.
Two dollars a girl, fifty girls. Robbery is what it was. Mr. Jenkins felt the awful weight of the coins in the old burlap pay sack. In the spring he would squeeze out another fifteen percent, with God as his witness, he would.
Still, better to get the hateful task over with now and have done with it. Knocking snow off his boots, he knocked on the door of Miss Cummings’ apartment, three doors down from the boarding house.
A few moments later, he heard her wheezing through the door, which opened a crack. When she saw him, though, the fat face broke into a simpering smile.
“Oh Mr. Jenkins, come in!” She wore a capacious silk nightdress that hung all the way to the floor, with the tips of Turkish slippers poking out the bottom. The profligacy pained his heart, but even he had to admit that she was worth what he paid her.
Miss Cummings pottered into her sitting room, kicking a pair of ugly, scuffed shoes out of his way as he followed. They were at odds with the sumptuous apartment, but she could hardly dress like a queen around the girls, could she?
“You’re so late tonight, Mr. Jenkins!” She dimpled and fluttered her eyes. “Won’t Ellie suspect?”
He laughed shortly, horribly. “Won’t be long. Only came with the pay.”
The smile disappeared off the old hag’s face as Miss Cummings took the proffered bag, but it soon reasserted itself. “I’m so glad you came, Mr. Jenkins. I have a delightful surprise for you.” She padded to her rosewood desk and withdrew something
“What is it?”
“Dolly’s hobble.” She emptied a few coins into his outstretched hand.
“From her mother, so she could run away whenever she wanted. I found them in the front hall this evening.”
“Run away?” Mr. Jenkins held one of the coins up to the light. The faces were worn near flat, but it would spend all right.
“Oh, I settled that.” Miss Cummings waved a hand in dismissal. “I always keep them.”
“You’d better. That’s what I pay you for.”
“You should have seen her, Mr. Jenkins!” The dimple reappeared. “She was so grateful for a few minutes of help searching that she told me the whole story! It was her mother’s idea—you remember Daphne? Had the girl keep the money in her shoe, where it would be safe. And it made her limp, so she wouldn’t have to work as hard.” Her voice lowered in a parody of whispered confidence. “Her leg’s as sound as any.”
“She’ll be on four machines tomorrow,” he replied, pocketing the money. He caught a flicker of greed on the old sow’s face as he did so. As if it wasn’t his due for eight months of lost work out of the girl!
After Mr. Jenkins left, Miss Cummings settled back into her armchair by the fire. Daphne may have gotten away from the mill, but what had it brought her? Poverty, that’s what. And to think she once envied her and her farm and her fine, fine husband! She could have had a husband too, if Ellie hadn’t stolen Mr. Jenkins out from under her nose.
That was all right. He’d realize one day how much she mattered. After all, if it weren’t for her, who would keep their happy little family together?