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The Poorhouse Waif | Isabel C. Byrum

Life in the Poorhouse

Few, save the poor, feel for the poor:
The rich know not how hard
It is to be of needful rest
And needful food debarred;
They know not of the scanty meal,
With small, pale faces round;
No fire upon the cold, damp hearth
When snow is on the ground.

—Letitia E. Landon

Mrs. Engler had long since given the care and feeding of the children over into the hands of inexperienced women, who might have utterly ruined the delicate digestive organs had it not been that the food allowed was wholesome and the quantities too small for them to overfeed. The children, after being provided with pewter spoons, were seated in groups around large pans and were allowed to dip as they chose into the mixture that the pan contained. For a time after his mother’s departure baby Edwin was fed from a cup, but as soon as he was able to handle the spoon and to toddle about the floor, he had to take his place with the others. Thus, table manners and politeness were unknown, and the earliest picture stamped upon the mind of little Edwin that he could in after-years remember was a group of boys and girls, of all ages and of whom he numbered but one, hovering about a large dishpan, each eagerly watching for an opportunity to “dip” for his or her share of the food.

With the picture came a desire to be good and kind to all. Perhaps some Christian friend of the family had offered just such a prayer for him, and God, knowing the evil surroundings that would have a tendency to make him selfish or unkind, protected and shielded him with this very wall of kindness. At least God saw and understood, and He cared enough to help the poor, little, innocent, untaught boy as he matured from babyhood, not only to be unselfish, but to avoid doing many things that might have provoked others to anger. In short, God became his teacher, and many times while Edwin was still very young, when he discovered his playmates doing that which was evil, there was something within his heart that said it was wrong and that he ought not to do as they were doing. His ideas in regard to the right and wrong of different things he for a time expressed quite freely among the children; but, finding that he was only ridiculed for his pious thoughts, he learned to keep his views to himself. Although he was silent, he endeavored to keep as far away as possible from the scenes that troubled his finer nature.

But not all the days were dark for Edwin. There were times when the children were taken for long walks out in the fields or woods, where the flowers grew and where the birds sang their sweet songs. Upon such occasions Edwin’s heart would be so filled with gladness that he would be almost beside himself. Not only the brown and yellow butterflies gliding hither and thither, lighting now and then upon some pretty blossom, only to soar away again high above his head as they discovered him approaching, attracted his attention; but their cousins, the little black crickets and the green and brown grasshoppers, springing about him in the meadowlands, made him shout aloud with delight. Not knowing the true names of the lively little fellows in the grass, he called them “jumper-men.” Sometimes he would catch them in his hands, but he never thought of hurting them just for fun. And the turnip-patch! What a treat it was for all the children to pull the pretty white balls from the earth and to eat them, dirt and all, for it must be remembered that none of the children had been taught by their overseers to be clean and neat. It was too great an undertaking for Mrs. Engler to attend to such minor points. So the turnip just out of the ground was more of a luxury to Edwin in his half-starved condition than candy could have been, and candy at the poorhouse was practically unknown.

Once there was a kind old lady who came to stay for a short time in the home. From the first she seemed interested in Edwin, and, seeing his great desire to do the right, she endeavored to help and to encourage him. She had a son of her own, who once had been small like Edwin, and she could understand how very hard some things were for Edwin to bear.

Among the things that the lady taught him to do was to kneel down, and with his little hands folded and in her lap, repeat after her the little prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But she failed to tell him that it was praying or what it meant to pray. Neither did she explain that there was a great God over all, to whom he could tell all his troubles. But although Edwin did not know the meaning of prayer, there was something about the words and the repeating of them that he enjoyed, and long after the dear old lady had gone away from the poorhouse, the words seemed to bring a real comfort and satisfaction to his poor, little, hungry soul.

Until the sixth year of Edwin’s life he never heard that he had ever had a father, a mother, or a home other than the place in which he was then living. He knew only that he existed, and that from day to day there were many things happening about him, some of which he enjoyed, but a great many of which were distasteful to him. But all that took place he quietly endured, thinking that it was the best that there was in life for him. The fact that some were more favored than he was caused him no jealous or covetous feelings. He reasoned that it was all right for them, but for himself it could not be.

During the play-hours when the children were allowed to amuse themselves outside of the building, Edwin soon discovered that “a soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”* (Proverbs 15:1) God must surely have taught Edwin the meaning of this proverb; for the old lady did not mention it in any of her talks, and there was no one else in that wretched place to tell him.

Many times the childish games were interrupted by the screaming and the swearing of the people in the insane-apartment. The timid children would cry out and tremble, but those who were older often tried to repeat the profane language. All these things, like many others, made deep impressions upon the sensitive nature of Edwin, and although he was not afraid, he often pondered them in his heart. Sometimes seated in a secluded corner he would watch the poor, demented creatures with a pitying gaze, wondering why they talked and acted so strangely, but whether he could or could not understand them, he studied the sane and the mad alike, and what he felt was right in the conduct of either he made his pattern, but the wrong he rejected.

At times during the play-hours the children, overcome by hunger, would slip around to the large window that opened into the bakery and there stand gazing wistfully down upon the loaves of fresh bread as they were taken from the large oven. Sometimes some crusts or stale biscuits were given them, and with these they would scamper away to the pump to moisten the bread before dividing it. It sometimes happened that there was not sufficient bread for each child to have even a bit, and when it happened thus, Edwin always gave his share to someone else. And when asked if he would like some certain thing, his answer was always, “If no one else wants it.”

Because of his thoughtfulness he was often obliged, because of the selfishness of others, to eat foods that had been rejected as refuse, but in his heart he never complained nor felt that he had not acted wisely. Thus, the Golden Rule, although in words unknown to him, became a governing principle in his life.

When the days were pleasant and warm during the summer months, groups of men and women often gathered about upon the large platform that surrounded the pump, or under the shade of an apple-tree, to prepare the vegetables for the table or the fruits for the coming winter’s use. As little was known at that time about home canning, the fruits were usually dried in the sun or in the large ovens after the baking was done. The children loved to gather about the groups at work to keep close watch for stray bunches of berries or raw potatoes and turnips, that might be carelessly dropped. In this they were now and then successful, but the rounds of Mrs. Engler were frequent, and for several reasons the workers were particular that nothing be lost or wasted.

Instead of horses, heavy teams of oxen were used for all farming purposes. These animals, although faithful and trusty under ordinary circumstances, did not like to have children playing about their feet; and as there was no one to pay especial attention to the little ones, it sometimes happened that a child was either crippled or killed by the hoofs or horns of the powerful animals. On one occasion Edwin saw one of his playmates bruised and trampled in this way.

These scenes, as well as the regular rounds of the chore-boy Jim with his water-yoke upon his shoulders, carrying either water for the home or slop for the pigs, were sights that were common and in many cases interesting to Edwin. But from them he could learn practically nothing of the things that he would need before he could become a useful man in the world. Aside from a few instructions that were given them in hard labor, the poorhouse children were allowed to grow up as a flock of poorly fed chickens or animals. They were given their rations, a place to sleep, and that was about all.

The daily routine of the poorhouse from year to year was little changed. Some passed on to their reward in the beyond, but the general order of things remained the same. The steward and his wife were busy from early dawn until late at night looking after everything and everybody, but many of the things of vital importance had to be neglected for a lack of sufficient time and strength.

“Better is the poor that walketh in his uprightness, than he that is perverse in his ways, though he be rich.”* (Proverbs 28:6)