7. The Life Story of A German Nurse Girl
The first name of the pretty nurse girl who writes this chapter is Agnes, but it's not worth while giving her last name because, as the last paragraph implies, it is liable soon to be changed.
I WAS born just twenty years ago in the old, old city of Treves, in what was once France, but is now Germany. There were eight children in our family, five girls and three boys, and we were comfortably off until my father died, which happened when I was only three years old.
My father was a truckman, carrying goods from the railway stations to the shops; he had a number of wagons going and had built up a good business, though he was always ill from some disease that he contracted when a soldier in the war with France. It was consumption, I believe, and it finally carried him off. We were living at the time in a fine new house that he had built near the Moselle, but we were soon obliged to move, because though my mother was a good business woman, every one robbed her, and even my uncle made the mortgage come down on our house without telling her—which she said was very mean.
By the time I was five years old my mother had lost everything except the money she got from the Government, which was enough to keep her, but the family had to break up, and I went away to a school kept by Sisters of Christian Liebe, in another city. The Government paid for me there on account of my being a soldier's orphan—all of us children had allowances like that.
From the time I went away to that school till I was fifteen years of age I did not once see my mother, but stayed in school during all the holidays. But in spite of that I was not sad. It was the pleasantest time of my life, and I often wonder if I shall ever be as happy again.
The school was for Catholics, and I was glad I was a Catholic it was so good to be there; and I heard that at the school to which the Lutheran children went the teachers were very severe. However that might be, our Sisters were among the kindest women that ever lived and they loved us all dearly.
Every one at the school made much of me because I was so little—a gay little thing with fuzzy, light hair and blue eyes, and plenty to say for myself and a good voice for singing. I learned quickly, too, and when play time came I played hard.
We got up at half-past six o'clock each morning, and had mass three times a week and morning prayer when there was no mass. At eight o'clock school began and lasted to ten, when there was half an hour for play, then an hour more school, then more play and then lunch, after which we worked in the garden or sewed or sang or played till six o'clock, when we had dinner, and we all went to bed at eight. We did not always go to sleep though, but sometimes lit candles after the Sisters had gone away and had feasts of apples and cakes and candies.
There were about eighty boys in this school and fifty-five girls—none of them older than fifteen years. We had a very large playground, and though the boys and girls were kept separate they yet found means of conversing, and when I was eleven years of age I fell in love with a tall, slim, thoughtful, dark-haired boy named Fritz, whose parents lived in Frankfurt. We used to talk to each other through the bars of the fence which divided our playground. He was a year and a half older than I, and I thought him a man. The only time I was ever beaten at that school was on his account. We had been
( 79) talking together on the playground; I did not heed the bell and was late getting in, and when the Sister asked what kept me I did not answer. She insisted on knowing, and Fritz and I looked at each other. The Sister caught us laughing.
Whipping on the hands with a rod was the punishment that they had there for very naughty children, and that is what I got. It did not hurt much, and that night at half past nine o'clock, when all the house was still, there came a tapping at our dormitory window, and when it was opened we found Fritz there crying about the way I had been whipped. He had climbed up one of the veranda posts and had an orange for me. The other girls never told. They said it was so fine and romantic.
Fritz and I kept up our friendship till he had to leave the place, which was when I had grown to be nearly thirteen years of age. He climbed to our dormitory again to bid me goodbye, and tell me that when I was free from the school he would seek me out and marry me. We cried together as he told me his plans for being a great man, and all that night and the next night, too, I cried alone; but I never saw him again, and I'm afraid that his plans must have miscarried.
When I was fifteen years of age I left school and returned to my mother, who was then living in a flat with some of my brothers and sisters. Two of my brothers were in the army and one of my sisters was in America, while another sister was married in Germany.
I did not like it much at home. My mother was almost a stranger to me, and after the kindness of the Sisters and the pleasantness of their school she seemed very stern.
I went to work for a milliner. The hours were from eight o'clock in the morning till six in the evening, but when there was much business the milliner would keep us till nine o'clock at night. I got no money, and was to serve for two years for nothing as an apprentice.
But the milliner found that I was already so clever with the needle that she set me to work making hats and dresses after the first two weeks that I was working for her, and when I had been there six months I could see that I had nothing more to learn in her place and that staying there was just throwing away my time.
Needlework seemed to come naturally to me, while I disliked cooking and was not much good at it. My two elder sisters, on the other hand, were stupid at sewing and embroidery, but master hands at cooking. My eldest sister was such a good cook that her husband started a restaurant so that she might have a chance to use her talents; and as for my second eldest sister, within two months after she landed in America—where she was sent by my eldest sister—she was earning $35 a month as a cook for one of the rich families.
My sister in America sent money for my eldest brother to go to her when his time in the army was done. We were all glad to see him go, because he had been a sergeant and was so used to commanding that he tried to command everybody he met. He even tried to command me!
Such ways won't do outside of the army. Another thing that we disliked was that, having been a sergeant, he was too proud to work, so we were glad to see him go to America. He lived for awhile by borrowing money from my sister till she got married to a mechanical engineer, who would not have him about the house when he heard of his actions.
So he had to do something, and became a butler, and a very good one, too, making plenty of money but spending it all on himself. He is employed by a family on the east side of Central Park now, getting $60 a month. When I went to see him a year ago he pretended that he did not know me. He has also forgotten my sister who helped him to come out here, and he has never sent a dollar to mother.
I heard about how easy it was to make money in America and became very anxious to go there, and very tired of making hats and dresses for nothing for a woman who was selling them at high prices. I was restless in my home also; mother seemed so stern and could not understand that I wanted amusement.
I was not giddy and not at all inclined to flirt, but I had been used to plenty of play at the school, and this all work and no play and no money to spend was hard.
If I had been inclined to flirt there was plenty to do in Treves, for the city was full of soldiers, young fellows who, when they wore their uniforms, thought that a girl could not fail to be in love with them; but they made a mistake when
( 81) they met me. They used to chirrup after me, just like birds, but I would turn and make faces to show what I thought of them—I was not quite sixteen then.
There were officers there, too, but they never noticed me.. They belong to the high families, and go about the streets with their noses up in the air and their mustaches waxed up, trying to look like the Emperor. I thought they were horrid.
I grew more and more tired of all work and no play, and more and more anxious to go to America; and at last mother, too, grew anxious to see me go. She met me one night walking in the street with a young man, and said to me afterward:
"It is better that you go."
There was nothing at all in my walking with that young man, but she thought there was and asked my eldest sister to lend me the money to go to America to my second eldest sister, and a month later I sailed from Antwerp, the fare costing $55.
My second eldest sister with her husband met me at Ellis Island and they were very glad to see me, and I went to live with them in their flat in West Thirty-fourth Street. A week later I was an apprentice in a Sixth Avenue millinery store earning $4 a week. I only paid $3 a week for board, and was soon earning extra money by making dresses and hats at home for customers of my own, so that it was a great change from Germany. But the hours in the millinery store were the same as in Germany, and there was overtime, too, occasionally; and though I was now paid for it I felt that I wanted something different—more time to myself and a different way of living. I wanted more pleasure. Our house was dull, and though I went to Coney Island or to a Harlem picnic park with the other girls now and then, I thought I'd like a change.
So I went out to service, getting $22 a month as a nursery governess in a family where there were three servants besides the cook.
I had three children to attend to, one four, one six and one seven years of age. The one who was six years of age was a boy; the other two were girls. I had to look after them, to play with them, to take them about and amuse them, and to teach them German—which was easy to me, because I knew so little English. They were the children of a German mother, who talked to them in their own language, so they already knew
( 82) something of it. I got along with these children very well and stayed with them for two years, teaching them what I knew and going out to a picnic or a ball or something of that sort about once a week, for I am very fond of dancing.
We went to Newport and took a cottage there in the summer time, and our house was full of company. A certain gentleman there once told me that I was the prettiest girl in the place, with a great deal more of the same sort of talk. I was dressed in gray, with white insertion, and was wearing roses at the time he said that. He caught me passing through the parlor when the others were away. Of course I paid no attention to him, but it was early in the day. It was generally late in the evening when gentlemen paid such compliments.
I enjoyed life with this family and they seemed to like me, for they kept me till the children were ready to go to school. After I left them I went into another family, where there were a very old man and his son and granddaughter who was married and had two children. They had a house up on Riverside Drive, and the old man was very rich. The house was splendid and they had five carriages and ten horses, and a pair of Shetland ponies for the children. There were twelve servants. and I dined with the housekeeper and butler, of course—because we had to draw the line. I got $25 a month here and two afternoons a week, and if I wanted to go any place in particular they let me off for it.
These people had a fine place down on Long Island to which we all went in the summer, and there I had to ramble around with the children, boating, bathing, crabbing, fishing and playing all their games. It was good fun, and I grew healthy and strong.
The children were a boy of ten and girl of eight years. They were restless and full of life but good natured, and as they liked me I would have stayed there till they grew too old to need me any more, but that something awful happened during the second summer that we were spending on Long Island.
It was one night in June, when the moon was very large and some big stars were shining. I had been to the village with the housekeeper to get the mail, and at the post office we met the butler and a young man who sailed the boats for us. Our way home lay across the fields and the young man with me kept
( 83) stopping to admire things, so that the others got away ahead of us.
He admired the moon and the stars and the sky, and the shine of the water on the waves and the way that the trees cast their shadows, and he didn't seem to be thinking about me at all, just talking to me as he might to any friend. But when we walked into a shadowy place he said:
"Aren't you afraid of catching cold?" and touched my wrap. "Oh, no," I said.
"You had better draw that together," said he, and put his arm about it to make it tight. He made it very tight, and the first thing I knew he kissed me.
It was done so quickly that I had no idea—I never saw a man kiss any one so quickly.
I gave such a scream that one could hear it a mile and boxed his ears, and as soon as I could tear myself away I ran as fast as I could to the house, and he ran as fast as he could to the village.
I was very angry and crying. He had given me no warning at all, and besides I did not like him enough. Such impudence! But I probably would not have said anything about the matter at the house, but that the next day all the people in the village were talking about it. My mistress heard of it and called me in, and I told her the truth; but she seemed to think that I could help being kissed, and I grew stubborn then and said I would not stay any more.
I am of a very yielding disposition when coaxed, and anything that I possess I will give away to any one who persists in asking me for it. That's one of my faults; my friends all tell me that I am too generous. But at the same time, when treated unjustly, I grow stubborn and won't give way.
And it was unjust to blame me for what that young man did. Who would have thought he would dare to do such a thing as kiss me? Why, he was only the young man who sailed the boat! And as to my screaming so loudly I could not help it; any girl would have screamed as loudly if she had been kissed as suddenly.
I went back to my sister's house in New York after I left this place, and stayed there a month resting. I had been nearly four years in the country, and in spite of sending $6 a month
( 84) to mother during all that time and sending money to bring my second eldest brother here I had $485 in the savings bank.
A girl working as I was working does not need to spend much. I seldom had to buy a thing, there was so much that came to me just the least bit worn.
After I had rested and enjoyed a holiday I secured another situation, this time to mind the baby of a very rich young couple. It was the first and only baby of the mistress, and so it had been spoiled till I came to take charge. It had red hair and green eyes, and a fearful temper—really vicious.
I had thought that the place would be an easy one, but I soon found out that this was a great mistake. The baby was eighteen months old, and it had some settled bad habits. The maid and its mother used to give it its own way in everything.
"It won't go in the carriage," said the maid to me when I first took charge.
"It will with me," said I.
"It sleeps all day and cries all night," said the maid.
"It's been spoiled by getting its own way, that's the trouble," said I.
So I put it in the carriage and took it out to Central Park, in a shady place down by the lake. It fought and struggled and howled as if it would like to kill me, but I had brought a good book and I paid no attention to it.
It had an orange, a bottle of milk and some cakes, and threw them all away. I didn't even look at it. It cried for nearly four hours steadily, but we had the place to ourselves and I didn't mind.
When I was good and ready I took it to the restaurant and gave it a little ice cream, for I knew that it was sure to be hot and thirsty. I was sorry for doing that, however, because it cried and fought me again when I put it back in the carriage. It wanted me to carry it all the way in my arms, which I was determined not to do.
So the first day that I had it in charge the baby did not get any sleep, and was good and tired when its proper bedtime came. The maid told me that it would not go to sleep without being rocked; but I said that I was in charge of that baby now and it would have to give up its crankiness. I put it to bed and it did not wait for any rocking; it went right off to sleep.
The mistress came in and said that I was a clever, good girl, and she was sure that I would get along finely with the baby—that all it needed was some one who understood and sympathized with it. She also said that it looked like a little angel. I wondered at her taste in angels.
Next day I carried the baby out to the park again for another lesson. It was in a dreadful temper, and when it was being dressed it beat the maid. It used to slap its mother and the maid in the face, but it never treated me in that manner. I would not allow it. I would hold up my finger and say, "B-aa-a-a-a-by!" and it would understand and stop. It saw something in my eye that made it keep quiet. I have great influence over children.
We went down by the lake again that second day, and I read a good German book and let the baby rage. When it was crying it could not be sleeping, and it was far better to have it cry in the daytime than at night, when it disturbed the whole house.
The baby threw everything out of its carriage, even its coverlets and pillows, and tried to fall out itself, but it was tied in. It cried till it exhausted itself inventing new ways of screaming. I sat at a distance from it, so that its screaming would not annoy me too much, and read my book till it had finished. Then I went and got some ice cream for myself, and gave the baby very little. I wanted to teach it to do without things. It had been in the habit of getting everything it cried for, and that had made it hard to live with. That night, again, the baby went to sleep without rocking, and the young mother was much pleased with my management and gave me a nice silk waist.
Day after day we went on like that. I took the baby some place where it could have its cry out without disturbing anybody, and I didn't allow it to sleep in the daytime, and so had it good and tired when night came on and other people wanted to sleep. It never failed to cry and struggle and throw its toys and food away, to show its rage, but I would have made a good baby of it had it not been for the mother and the maid. When I wasn't on hand they spoiled it by giving it all its own way. Even when I was on hand the mother was constantly running into the room and petting the baby. At its slightest cry she would come to see what it wanted, and hold things up for it to choose.
This made discipline impossible, and in the end the baby was too much for me. I was made to carry it about, and to get up and walk with it in the night, and at last my health broke down and I actually had to go to a hospital.
When I got out I stayed at my sister's for a month, and then went as a nursery governess in a family where there are three children, none of them over eight years of age. I have to teach them their lessons, including German, and to take them out driving and playing. I have recovered my health, but I will never again undertake to manage a strange baby. The duties are light; I have two afternoons a week to myself and practically all the clothing I need to wear. My salary is $25 a month.
Wherever I have been employed here the food has always been excellent; in fact, precisely the same as that furnished to the employer's families. In Germany it is not so. Servants are all put on an allowance, and their food is very different from that given to their masters.
I like this country. I have a great many friends in New York and I enjoy my outings with them. We go to South Beach or North Beach or Glen Island or Rockaway or Coney Island. If we go on a boat we dance all the way there and all the way back, and we dance nearly all the time we are there.
I like Coney Island best of all. It is a wonderful and beautiful place. I took a German friend, a girl who had just come out, down there last week, and when we had been on the razzle-dazzle, the chute and the loop-the-loop, and down in the coal mine and all over the Bowery, and up in the tower and everywhere else, I asked her how she liked it. She said:
"Ach, it is just like what I see when I dream of heaven."
Yet I have heard some of the high people with whom I have been living say that Coney Island is not tong. The trouble is that these high people don't know how to dance. I have to laugh when I see them at their balls and parties. If only I could get out on the floor and show them how—they would be astonished.
Two years ago, when I was with a friend at Rockaway Beach, I was introduced to a young man who has since asked me to marry him. He is a German from the Rhine country, and has been ten years in this country. Of course he is a tall, dark man, because I am so small and fair. It is always that
( 87) way. Some of our friends laugh at us and say that we look like a milestone walking with a mile, but I don't think that it is any of their business and tell them so. Such things are started by girls who are jealous because they have no steady company..
I don't want to get married yet, because when a girl marries she can't have so much fun—or rather, she can't go about with more than one young man. But being engaged is almost as bad. I went to the theater with another young man one night, and Herman was very angry. We had a good quarrel, and he did not come to see me for a week.
A good-looking girl can have a fine time when she is single, but if she stays single too long she loses her good looks, and then no one will marry her.
Of course I am young yet, but still, as my mother used to say, "It's better to be sure than sorry," and I think that I won't wait any longer. Some married women enjoy life almost as much as the young girls.
Herman is the assistant in a large grocery store. He has been there nine years, and knows all the customers. He has money saved, too, and soon will go into business for himself.
And then, again. I like him, because I think he's the best dancer I ever saw.