Bertha’s La Petite


A Story of Mattawaugan Mill,

by Bertha Lane Mellish

(As published in The Willimantic [CT] Weekly Journal

Friday, December 17, 1897)

Mary dear, at last you have asked me to tell you the whole story of your mother.  Why did you wait until you had gone away to school that I must write it you?  If your mother’s life had been a fortunate, a happy one, you should have known her story long before you had reached your nineteenth year.  But now wait a little longer.  I shall see you soon.

You say I have not told you enough about my own life either.  I am not apt at writing, Mary, for I think the education that came so late fits clumsily upon me, like gloves on workworn hands.  Still I will tell you a story now of that long ago mill-life of mine.  It shall be a sequel to our hearth stories of my girlhood on the Massachusetts farm.

It was June of the second year that I worked in the finishing room of Mattawaugan woolen mill when Boss Darley set a new hand to burl with me.  Not over skilful myself, tho’ I had worked so long, I crossly obeyed him.  “Show ’er how, an’ look after the knots on her side the cut”  The new hand wrote her name for the boss, Marie Racine – a pretty name, I thought, as apt for her trim prettiness as was Maggie Klemm for my clumsy strength.

She was a dainty, tiny thing, quite French from the heels of her brown leather shoes to the little aigrette on her straw hat.  It rained that first morning Marie worked in the finishing room, and the raindrops had made little white streaks down her pink cheeks.  The girls were murmuring, “The little one’s washed her rouge off crying for mamma;” but Marie’s bright hazel eyes shed no tears.  She radiated cheerfully in the damp room.  “What a jolly, big dance hall,” she said, “and there’s my partner!”  as French Joe, six feet three and well proportioned, came lumbering up with a load of cuts.  Another thing I shouldn’t have noticed if the hands hadn’t been murmuring about “that deformed girl.” – one of the new girl’s shoulders was a trifle higher than the other.

Do you think I am long in telling my story, Mary?  I linger over those bright days.  Darkness and sorrow came too soon.

Teaching Marie to burl was not hard.  Her little hands had felt all over her side and cut and taken out every knot and running long before I was ready to pull over.  She used to burl half my side too, when the boss wasn’t by those summer days.  and I could turn about and look across the street with its swarming children, sweet even in their rags and dirt.  Out on the walk that led to the wall in front of the mill they had a rendevous.  I can see now the towheaded lad from across the way hopping along on his bare toes, astride the imaginary support of a decrepit velocipede, whose two remaining wheels, fastened together with rope, parted company at every jolt and set off independently, and his chubby neighbor keeping time to the ceremony with solemn and extreme contortions of face and limbs.  How Marie laughed!  She reached a penny to the towheaded urchin out of the window, but she threw the chubby one’s penny at him; he was so grimy.  Past the little brown mill tenement across the way, with its rainbow of clotheslines in the rear, I looked, to the hillside beyond with twinkling birches, sedate oaks and grim pines on its crown, and farther yet to the low, green craggy mountain range outlined against the northern sky.  Beyond these mountains flowed the wild Moswansicott river to which our placid little mill stream was taking its way.  Those were happy days for me that summer weather when Marie made the work no longer hard.  The sunshine preceded us in the morning and waited upon us home at night.  All out-of-doors looked in at our open windows.  The girl beside me sang softly at her work, and the mill was even a cheerful place.  I pacified my conscience with the thought that if Marie did most of the burling, I did all the lifting and pulling.

She grew very popular with the French girls, who, with French aptness, called her “La Petite.”  Not counting the two or three English and Americans and myself, half the hands in the finishing room were of French descent or birth, and half of them Irish.  I was the only German.  There was bad blood between the French and the Irish.  The gaunt leader of the Irish faction, Lily Galooly, one of the sewers in, took a great liking for La Petite, and it came about that in gathering around her to hear her chatter or sing at noon, the two parties mingled on neutral ground in friendliness, and the feud was healed.

Marie and I were good friends.  She told me how she had left her home, “because papa isn’t steady, you see.”  Ah yes!  I saw, too, why the child was so slender and small, and how the slight deformity was caused.  Marie had never known her mother.

Do you think I am long in telling my story, Mary?  I linger over those bright days.  Darkness and sorrow came too soon.

One August morning Marie was to come to the mill an hour late, for she had gone the night before to visit friends in the adjoining town, where her home had been.  Boss Darley gave her leave of absence rather gruffly, for the work was pressing.  The southbound train came in at half-past seven and Marie did not arrive.  Boss Darley waited an hour longer, then sent for someone to take her place.  He was just and stern.  “She’ll be shoved sure,” Lily Galooly said, when I went down to her place with a cut.  “What’ll she do now?”  I could not bear the Irish woman’s excited interest.  “Marie is the best burler in the room,” I answered.  “Boss Darley will be glad enough to excuse her and get her back.”

Not many minutes after that, as I looked out, Marie coming hastily up the street, already blinding with dust and glare, stopped in front of the mill to speak to French Joe, bent under a heavy cut he was bringing around.  Boss Darley was looking out too.  His stern eyes grew sterner as he saw the child stop.  She came in and, nodding to me, passed to the boss’s desk to speak to him.  He was writing a note.  The girl waited.  It was her dismissal.  Her face did not change as she walked firmly out between the rows of piled up cuts and the shearing machines on one side, and the burlers’ boards and sewers’ frames on the other, speaking or signing a kind good bye to the sympathetic, excited hands.

Work was very hard to get for a skilled, strong hand just then; it proved impossible to get for Marie.  She had made many friends, but they were poor.  I love her as I love you, my little girl.  I had no home then to which to bring Marie.

French Joe took Marie to his cottage over the hill.  She could not be his wife.  In Canada years before he had parted from his wife.  Ah, how my heart sickened the day that news went out as I passed the group of French girls shrugging pitying shoulders over “La Petite que s’est revenue tard.”  No more to try to get work for Marie!  Yet once I went to that house to see her.  If only I might bring her away.  Surely some place could be found.

It was a lonely little house standing at the end of a green lane.  Marie was bending over some bright asters in the yard as I came in sight of it.  The tears blinded my eyes as I saw the familiar little figure.  While I went round a clump of arbor vitae it disappeared, and the house was locked and still when I stood at the door.

There was a darker contrast for me in those winter days than the mere noisy loneliness of the mill room, now shut in by its glazed windows from all the world outside.  The arrival of good fortune in the portly person of Uncle Fritz broke only the outward monotony of my life, leaving the inner grief unchanging.  The good God spare me such another sorrow!  None but you could give it to me, Mary, and you are good and true, I know, and never will.

Staying in Mattawaugan till I should go to school the succeeding fall, once more I tried to see my poor girl, in May, five weeks after her baby was born.  She seemed to have no friends now.  The little house looked desolate and uncared for, unlike anything which could belong to Marie.  There was no one in the yard, no visible life in the house.  I sat down by the step, to wait even till French Joe came home.  I must see Marie, help her, comfort her.

I do not know just how long I had sat by the step, in the warm sunshine, quite still, thinking sadly of the happy days that had been and of the sad days that were and were to be, when something made me look around.  There was no sound, I think.  Just at the turn of the wall behind the house, I saw a little figure that I knew, stealthily disappear.  Instantly I called Marie, and followed.  She knew without looking back that she was pursued.  Surely I was mad to pursue her.  A rumor that I had heard had made me so persistent to see her.  It was that which made me follow now.  They said in the village that La Petite a Joseph was not herself, that French Joe had twice brought her back from the river road.  Had the sight of me, stirring bitter memories, recalled that dreadful purpose?

She had not turned to the road now.  She could not without passing in front of me as I sat.  On the east the road skirted round the mountains; she was going straight toward them.  Down a hill we ran, across a stream at its foot, and up a slight incline through a narrow belt of hemlock trees that skirted the foothills of Mount Holly.  Then there were rough woodcutters’ paths winding among broken ledges and boulders.  On she went, ever the same undiminishable distance before me.  The paths stopped.  Surely she could not, would not go further.  In despair I called to her.  She paid no heed, lightly scaling the scarred faces of the crags.  But I knew the mountain better than Marie, and I saw the way she went, straight as death to the river on the other side.  Near the spot where I stopped a deep gorge cleft the heart of the mountain, and down it flowed a little stream.  I ran with all my might up the stream’s bed, climbed the precipice at its head, clinging to the clefts in the rocks, and reached the west summit, to find Marie skimming along the ledge that walled it before me.  Unless that strange endurance should fail there was hardly a hope of catching her now.  A fresh danger was added.  The north side of the mountain was a precipitious mass of trap rock.  Between the crumbling cliffs steep slopes covered the square-edged loose stones, large and small, broken from their faces, ready to be dislodged at a touch.  If I followed Marie, clinging by the hands to the same roots and branches, at every movement I should start stones that might fall upon her on their downward course.  I waited in agonized suspense at the top.  Without a glance back, always looking for a bush or tree to cling to, now sitting and sliding with the sliding stones, now staying the doubtful support of some dead branch by a yet more doubtful foothold, every moment escaping a danger which seemed unescapable, she reached the belt of the trees that clothed the steep base of the mountain just above the river, and disappeared in them.

She would hear no sound and know that no one followed her over the rocks.  The time was endless, yet unrealizable.  Suddenly I heard the sound that warned me that the river had its own.  Then I flung myself down those rocks, lost my hold, and fell.  They found us both that night; Marie at rest, it seemed, with none of the death agony in her still face; me bruised, half covered with a mass of small stones, at the foot of a low cliff.

In my long illness afterward I felt happier about Marie than I had for many months.  Heaven’s mercy had led her out from her shamed, stifled life to a guiltless death.

There is only a word more of the story, Mary.  Marie’s baby was left to me by the dead mother and the living father, and I loved her as Marie’s self.  That was eighteen years ago.  Yes, darling, that was you.

Bertha Lane Mellish.

South Hadley, Mass.