The Jewel of Gresham Green
- Tuesday, August 26, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Jewel of Gresham Green by Lawana Blackwell (Bethany House).
15 April 1884
Stitch and turn, stitch and turn, stitch and turn ...
Jewel Libby folded the raw edges of silk into narrow hems as her feet pumped the treadle. Monotony was what made the job dangerous. Most scarred fingers belonged not to the newest workers at J. Mobley, Elegant Corsets for the Particular Woman, but to those who had spent enough time in the sewing room to forget that the needle could hypnotize just before it bit.
That same necessity to be alert took away temptation to chat with the women nearest her for the six days weekly, ten hours daily Jewel sat among them. Besides, socializing could get a person sacked, and then how would she feed her daughter?
Mr. Fowler's whistle shrilled. Machines hummed into silence. Forty sets of eyes mirrored Jewel's own puzzlement, for no evening sunlight slanted through the west windows.
The manager jumped up onto a chair and clapped his hands; an unnecessary action in the tense stillness. "On account of the birth of Mr. Mobley's second granddaughter, you may all go home!"
"Four hours early!" Jewel said to another worker while joining the applause.
"God bless the child!" someone exclaimed.
"If she'd only been a grandson, we'd have been given the whole day," Mrs. Fenton said sagely during the homeward trek up Steelhouse Lane.
Jewel sent a look over her shoulder before risking a guilty smile. Not that Mr. Mobley would be anywhere in the vicinity. She had seen the factory owner once during two years of employment.
"Why are boys more valued than girls, do you think?" Jewel asked the older woman.
"Rich folk care about carryin' on the name. We poor need sons because we can send them out to work earlier than girls. And they're paid more."
Jewel gave her a sidelong look.
Mrs. Fenton shrugged. "Life's hard, if you ain't noticed."
They hurried past Perseverance Iron Works, its chimney belching smoke into the already pewter sky. Windows sent out ripples of heat. Jewel wondered how many sons of the poor sweat inside.
Thank God I have a girl, Jewel thought. Not that raising a daughter was easy. Most of her worries centered around Becky. Particularly of late.
They turned onto Vesey Street, then Halls Passage. Three-storey tenement buildings rose on both sides, identical in their stained brick, filth, foul odors, and weed-choked courtyards.
"I've got it!" a young voice called.
"Over here!" piped another.
Sixty feet ahead in the lane, five young boys played a game of catch with a ball. Near the arched entrance of the building on the right, a man stood holding a small girl's hand. Jewel's breath caught in her throat at the sight of the girl's berry-red hair, so like her own.
"Do you see—" Mrs. Fenton began.
"Becky!" Jewel gathered her skirts and ran.
Mr. Dunstan dropped her daughter's hand. He was forty or so, tall and solidly built, with blue eyes that could have been handsome if not set above a vulgar smile. He called out, "You'll be hurtin' yourself if you slip on them cobbles, Mrs. Libby."
Automatically Jewel slowed her steps, the immediate danger past. She drew close enough to take four-year-old Becky's hand. The small palm was clammy from the rent collector's grasp, and she had to fight the urge to wipe it against her skirt.
"It's just that she's not supposed to be out here without Mrs. Platt."
The corner of her eye caught movement. Mrs. Fenton, slipping into the building. That stung, but how could Jewel fault a woman who was the sole support for her aged mother? When these were the cheapest tenements within walking distance of the factory? When Mr. Dunstan wielded the power to toss a person out into the street?
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