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Bertha – sewing machine girl – 1871

A story of a sewing machine operator. Bertha the sewing machine girl; or, Death at the wheel!
By Francis S. Smith. [Louisville, Ky.?] [c. 1871].

Sheet Books May 18, 1871 vol xxvi No 27

“If you will listen to my love, Miss Bascomb, you shall ride in your carriage!” By FRANCIS S. SMITH, Author of “Alice Blake,” “Maggie the Charity Child,” “Eveleen Wilson,” etc.


Our story opens in a work-shop for girls, situated on the third floor of a large building in the upper part of New York city, on the east side. The proprietor of this establishment was one Caleb Curson, a swarthy visaged, middle-aged man, of rather forbidding appearance.

Mr. Curson’s method of doing business was to contract with tailors, shirt-makers, and others who had garments of whatever kind, in large quantities, to be made up, and then to hire girls to do the sewing.

He was a gruff and unfeeling man, but prided him-self on paying promptly, in all cases, whatever he agreed to pay, although, to tell the truth, he was an unmitigated old skinflint.

Mr. Curson’s foreman—the only male, by the way, save an errand boy, employed in his establishment—was Conrad Bascomb, a Welshman, about fifty years of age, whose countenance, although marked by a somewhat reckless look, was not without evidences of good feeling. His eyes, hair, and skin were dark, and although he did occasionally indulge in a show of mirthfulness, as a general thing his countenance was downcast, and it seemed as though he were perpetually struggling with some inward fear which stultified his natural character. He had emigrated to this country with his wife and infant daughter, some twenty years prior to the opening of our story And now it is only necessary that we should say a word with regard to one more character in Mr. Curson’s establishment before we proceed with our story. This was Bertha Bascomb, daughter of the foreman.

A glorious creature she was, of twenty summers, with large, lustrous, azure eyes, straight nose, finely chiselled mouth and chin, and broad, white forehead, around which a wealth of golden curls clustered. She was indeed beautiful, and as good as she was beautiful. Day after day she toiled at the sewing machine uncomplainingly, with a smile for all whenever addressed, and an unkind word was never allowed to pass her cherry-ripe, pouting lips.

The reader will not be surprised, after this hasty description, when we say that Bertha Bascomb was a universal favourite with both sexes. There was not a girl in the shop, save one, who was not her warm friend. There was not a young man of her acquaintance who would not have done battle in her behalf unhesitatingly, and her father little less than idolized her. One morning about ten o’clock, while the girls in Mr. Curson’s establishment were busily at work, two strangers entered. One was a sinister-looking person, about forty-five years of age, stout, red faced, and coarse-looking; the other, some five years older, was a pale-faced, mild-looking man, with a benevolent expression of countenance.

There was not the slightest resemblance between the two—nothing, in fact, either in feature or manner, which would lead even the closest observer to suspect there was any relationship between them—and yet they were brothers. Their names were Jasper and David Carter. The former was a Philadelphia merchant, who had come to New 2 York on business. He was the elder of the two. The latter had accompanied him to New York more for pleasure than for anything else, and when we add that the brothers had emigrated to this country from Wales some years previously to the opening of our story, we have said an which it is necessary to say concerning their antecedents at present. Mr. Jasper Carter inquired for Mr. Curson, the proprietor, and the two gentlemen were at once shown to that person’s private office.

“Good morning, Mr. Curson,” said the merchant, cordially, at the same time holding out his hand. “i was in the city, and I thought I would call in and see how you were progressing with the last order I gave you.”

“Oh, yes,” replied Curson, smiling affably; “you allude to the salt-sacks. I think they are about half finished, and I have no doubt but I shall have them ready at the date promised. However, I will question the foreman, and he can tell you exactly.”

And touching at little ben before him, a dirty-faced boy of about fourteen years, with unkempt hair and great, staring eyes, made his appearance.

“Tom,” said Mr. Curson, “call Bascomb, and tell him I wish to speak with him.”

David Carter, the merchant’s brother, started slightly as the name Bascomb escaped Curson’s lips, and he muttered to himself: “What a fool I am to start like a frightened girl every time I hear that name! As if there were not more than one Bascomb in the world”

And yet he kept his eyes fixed on the door, and when the foreman entered, he had no sooner caught sight of his countenance than he trembled in every joint, and had all he could do to hide the intense excitement which had so suddenly taken possession of him.

“I must get away from his presence,” he muttered, “or he may recognize me, and that would be decidedly unpleasant, to say the least.”

Assuming an air of carelessness which he by no means felt, he passed silently from the room, and went sauntering through the work-shop.

He passed from one to another of the operatives, watching their pliant fingers as they deftly handled the various goods upon which they were at work, till at last he reached the machine upon which Bertha Bascomb, the foreman’s daughter, was at work.

As he stood there gazing idly on, suddenly the girl raised her head from her work and turned her large, speaking blue orbs full upon him.

The effect upon him was electric. With an exclamation of surprise he stood rooted to the spot, and gazed upon the girl as though she had been a spectre, while his hair stood on end and great drops of sweat broke out upon his forehead.

As the girl turned her attention again to her work, greatly wondering what could so have excited the strange gentleman, David Carter suddenly regained control of himself. He knew that the girl had noticed his emotion, and by way of explanation, he walked close up to her, and leaning over, said: “You must excuse me, miss; but you reminded me so strongly of one who has been some years in her grave that I could not help thinking for a moment that she was before me. Pray, may I inquire your name?” “My name is Bertha Bascomb sir,” she replied. “I am the daughter or the foreman.”

“Indeed” responded the merchant’s brother, whose black eyes seemed to kindle at once with the fire of hate, and then he muttered to himself: “It is she beyond a doubt, and Bascomb has played me false. I wished to avoid him before, but I must see him now, face to face, even though the interview were to end in my certain death. But it cannot— no, it cannot I have him fast if it comes to a quarrel between us. Yes—I have him—I have him.! ” His soliloquy was interrupted by his brother, who, having finished his business with Curson, had walked out to seek him, and finding him in a brown study over the beautiful machine girl, slapped him on the shoulder, exclaiming, as he did so:

“Why, brother David, what is the matter with you? You look as wild as a hawk; and I declare you have gnawed that big under lip of yours till it is actually bleeding. Wake, up, if you wish to go with me! Or have you suddenly determined to become a sewing machine operator?” “I am ready to go at any time, Jasper.” replied David Carter, with an attempt to appear entirely at case. “I was waiting for you.”

“Well, come along, then,” said David; but just as they turned to depart the girl again looked up, and the merchant, he knew not why, was irresistibly attracted toward her. In fact, he could not help addressing her: and, once in conversation with her, he grew more and more interested in her, and at last offered her a situation in his family as sempstress. She was willing to accompany him to Philadelphia, but her father, who seemed to recognize the merchant, objected to her going, stating that Mr. Curson could not spare her. This objection, the merchant said, amounted to nothing, for he could get Curson’s consent that the girl might go, and he entered the private once of the proprietor to talk him into compliance with his wishes.


Hardly had the merchant gone, when David Carter, who had been standing by himself in a brown study, muttered: “So—so—this thing begins to grow interesting. If that girl should go with Jasper, all my nice plans —plans concocted long ago, and, thus far, successfully carried out, may possibly fail. That must never be. I have not perilled my soul and body both to be thus easily baulked. Half-an-hour ago I would have sacrificed almost anything rather than that this man, Bascomb, should have seen and recognized me. Now, I must make myself known to him, in self-defence. It is singular what a difference even a half-hour in time may make in the circumstances of an individual. Yes—I must reveal myself to Bascomb, let what will come of it!” and advancing, he touched the foreman lightly on the shoulder, saying, in an undertone, as he did so, “A word with you, friend”. Bascomb followed him to an unoccupied corner of the shop, almost mechanically. “Well, sir,” he said, in a morose tone—for he felt anything but good-natured in view of what had just transpired—“what do you want with me?”

“That girl of yours must never go to Philadelphia with Jasper Carter, let what will be the decision of the proprietor of this establishment,” said the merchant’s brother, still keeping his face turned from the foreman, and speaking in an undertone.

“And pray, sir,” exclaimed the foreman, in a tone of mingled surprise and indignation. “Who gave you authority to say what my daughter shall or shall not do? It seems to me, sir, that you are stepping greatly out of your way to interfere with that which does not concern you. Your conduct, sir, allow me to say is not only officious but absolutely impertinent, and you would oblige me, very much, by attending strictly to your own business.”

“That is just exactly what I am doing,” replied David Carter, with great imperturbability, but not yet looking his interlocutor full in the face—“I am attending strictly to my own business when I say the girl must not— shall not —do you hear that, sir? shall not —go to Philadelphia with Jasper Carter.” “And who shall prevent it if I decide to the contrary?” asked the foreman, angrily—and then he added, petulantly “your impudence would amuse if it were not of so serious a character as to offend me. You are either crazy or drunk, I believe, and in either case my plain duty is to have you turned into the street. Therefore, be gone at once, or I will have you ejected by force.”

“Before you resort to extreme measures,” said David Carter, “perhaps it would be as well for you to look closely at me. In transacting business of any kind it is always well for a man to know who he is dealing with.” And, as he spoke. David Carter turned his face full upon the foreman.

The effect upon Conrad Bascomb was more that electrical. It was absolutely stunning. His face turned as white as paper, his hair rose on end, his knees smote each other, and with a great groan he leaned against the wall or the workshop for support, and buried his face in his hands. “Great Heaven!” he exclaimed, as he gasped for breath, “can this indeed be your I thought you dead long years ago”?

“I know you did,” replied David Carter, with a chuckle, “and I was very willing that you should think so till half an hour since. This is the first time in eighteen years that I have-visited New York, although my brother has been here frequently. You recognized him while he was talking to you a moment since, did you not?” “I did—I did!” groaned the foreman. “And in all these long years have you never seen him to know him before?” asked the merchant’s brother. “Never—never!” was the reply.

“That is strange!” said David Carter, as though communing with himself: “very strange! What a fortunate thing it was that I accompanied him on this occasion. It seems almost providential!” He chuckled diabolically for a moment, and then suddenly fixing a look of burning hatred upon the foreman—a look beneath which the latter quailed like a guilty wretch—he hissed between his set teeth. “Conrad Bascomb, you have not dealt fairly by me! You did not complete the work which you solemnly swore you would carry out. Confess it, beast! Confess it, or take the consequences!” “I do confess it!” exclaimed the wretched man, in a tone of the most abject terror; “I do confess it! I tried to do as I agreed to, but I could not! I had not the heart to do it!”

“You had not the heart to do it!” sneered the merchant’s brother, fixing upon the shrinking foreman a withering look; “have you the heart to be hung Would it please you to dangle between Heaven and earth, while a mocking rabble heaped curses upon the murderer? Have you the heart for that. I ask?” “Mercy! mercy” groaned the foreman, clasping his hands nervously.

“I will have no mercy,” returned David Carter, with a scowl, “unless you do exactly as I bid you That girl must not go to Philadelphia! No, not even if your employer insists upon it! Not even if you are discharged for disobeying him! Not even if you are obliged to go to the alms-house for lack of work! Do you hear, wretch?—do you hear? The alms-house is preferable to a felon’s cell, with the certainty of a felon’s death—is it not?”

Suddenly a change seemed to come over Bascomb’s face, and with a look of desperate defiance, he exclaimed: “I am a fool to be frightened to death by your threats, after ail, David Carter! If I am guilty or murder, you are guilty of almost as grave a crime! You dare not, for your life, denounce me! To do so would be your ruin!”

“Conrad Bascomb,” returned the merchant’s brother, with the greatest imperturbability, “you are a bigger fool than I took you for. Listen to me now. For twenty years I have been striving to accomplish a certain object—an object which to me is all in all—an object to secure the accomplishment of which I would lay down my life with as little hesitation, as I would eat if I were hungry! Can you understand the nature of a man who would be willing to sacrifice not only all there is worth living for in this life, but his eternal salvation hereafter to gain that upon which he has set his heart—that which he has thought of by day, and dreamed of by night till it is woven into the very fibre of his soul? Such a nature is mine! Could I have avoided you half-an-hour since. I would willingly have done so—now, I would not lose sight of you to save my life! And to prove to you how earnest I am, I will, within the next two minutes, denounce you as a murderer, unless you agree fully to carry out my instructions! Do you hear? I give you exactly two minutes in which to decide—if your mind is not, made up in that time you are booked for the gallows and I am ruined.”
As he spoke, he deliberately took his watch from his pocket, opened it, and fixed a look of stern determination upon the foremen.

The latter hesitated for a moment, but seeing that the mind of his tormentor was fully made up, he said in a tone or the deepest dejection: “I am in your power and I cannot help myself. I will do as you desire!”

“That is sensible,” said David Carter, with a sardonic smile, “and it is just what I expected of you. You always were a sensible man. At least, I always found you so. And now, this is what you must do-Let what will happen, you must stick to your resolution not to let the girl go with my brother. Neither threats, nor entreaties, nor , must move you from this resolve. And the next you are to do is to meet me to-night at 9 o’clock in the reading room of the Metropolitan Hotel. My brother for Albany this afternoon—he has business there and will return to-morrow, so that he will not be present to interrupt our interview. In the meantime, I must fix upon some plan to make myself secure, the particulars of which I will impart when we meet. Recollect—at the Metropolitan this evening at 9 o’clock—and see that you do not fail me!”

“I will be there,” responded Bascomb, in a tone of abject submission. And just at this time Mr. Jasper Carter, accompanied by the proprietor, rejoined them.


While the conversation detailed in the previous chapter between David Carter and Conrad Bascomb was going on, a conversation of a far different mature was going forward not far from them between Bertha Bascomb and Lisette Graham, the girl who sat next her in the shop.

Lisette was a bold-looking, but not unhandsome girl, about Bertha’s age. She was rather under the medium size, had small, but brilliant black eyes, a dark complexion, black hair, prominent features, was somewhat spare in flesh, and of a nervous, restless temperament.

The most casual observer would have set her down at once as one not to be trusted. Deceit flashed from her dark orbs and a look of duplicity, played around the corners of her handsomely-shaped mouth.

This girl hated Bertha Bascomb with a deadly hatred. Naturally unfeeling, over-bearing vain and entirely selfish it was not difficult for her to hate, even under ordinary circumstances, but Bertha Bascomb had been unfortunate enough to win the love of a man whom Lisette Graham admired —one, moreover, who had paid Lisette much attention before he became acquainted with Bertha —and this was an offence which, in the eyes of the revengeful girl, was unpardonable—an offence which aroused within her every evil passion of which the human heart is capable and she resolved on a deadly, deep revenge. As a general thing, however, she masked her hatred under the guise of friendship, waiting, meantime, for a safe opportunity to strike, and it was only when the name of Philip Hamilton (Bertha’s lover) came up between them that she forgot herself. At such times she would break out occasionally in the most furious invectives, and heap all sorts of abuse upon her mild and amiable shop-mate.

This girl had heard the proposition which the old merchant had made to Bertha Bascomb, and she accused the latter of wishing to go to Philadelphia because an aunt or her lover. Philip Hamilton, resided there, and she wished to gain the old lady’s favor. Bertha indignantly denied the charge, where-upon Lisette covered her with the most violent abuse. Among other harsh things she called her a thief, because she had stolen from her the affections of Philip Hamilton. Their conversation was interrupted by the appearance upon the scene of the old merchant.

“Well, little one,” he said, addressing Bertha, “I have made every effort to secure your services, but I believe I have had my trouble for my pains after all. I’ll be hanged if I can understand the matter, though. I secured your father’s consent in the first place—then I secured your employer’s —and when I thought the last obstacle removed, presto! your father changes his mind again, and in spite or everything which I or Mr. Curson can say utterly refuses to let you stir a step, even though dismissal from his position were to be the result of his refusal. Indeed, he would have been discharged had I not begged Curson to retain him. Now, what is it all about. I wonder?” “I’m sure I do not know, sir,” replied Bertha, with a look of disappointment; “but if father says I cannot go, of course I must remain where I am.”

“Well, I will prevail upon your father to change his mind yet,” returned the merchant, in a confident tone. “I have by no means relinquished the idea, I assure you. It is not in my nature to give up easily anything upon which I may have set my heart. Come along, brother David, he continued, turning to address his brother. “I believe I am about through here for the present.”

David Carter, who had been scribbling something on the back of a card with his pencil, followed his brother at once; and as he passed the spot at which Lisette Graham was stationed, he adroitly dropped the card before her in such a way that the act was entirely un-observed by anybody present except the girl herself.

Picking the card up Lisette hastily ran her eyes over it and read as follows:
“Young woman—I do not know your name, nor have I any knowledge whatever of your antecedents, but judging from some portions of a conversation which I overheard a moment since between yourself and Miss Bascomb, the conclusion is irresistible that you do not like her any too well. If you would regain the man you have lost, and revenge yourself at the same time, meet me at the Houston street ferry this evening when your day’s work is ended, and I will prove to you that I am truly, A FRIEND.”

“I know not what your object may be,” muttered the girl, as she tore the card deliberately into bits and dropped them on the floor. “You doubtless have a purpose to serve—nobody works without a purpose—but something tells me that you hate my rival, and that is enough for me. I would risk my soul’s salvation to bring Philip Hamilton to my feet, and to be revenged upon Bertha Bascomb! So, come what may. I will meet your!”


True to her determination, when the six o’clock whistle announced the termination of the day’s work, Lisette Graham donned her street apparel and wended her way to the Houston street ferry. David Carter was there before her and received her with a satisfaction which he did not attempt to conceal.
“You are punctual,” he said, in a tone of affability not at all natural to him; “and punctuality in keeping an appointment is always commendable. I had some misgivings that you might be afraid to meet me, but the result proves that you are a girl or nerve.”

“You held out inducements to me,” she replied, calmly, “which would have drawn me here in spite or any misgivings which I might have had, and if you mind your promises I shall not regret coming, let the consequences to me in the end be what they may!”

“Spoken like a brave girl” exclaimed David Carter, in a tone of encouragement; “be you but firm, and never fear but I shall redeem my promises to the letter.”

“In such a cause,” returned the girl, resolutely, “my firmness will never fall me, and that our interview may be as brief as possible, tell me at once what your plans are and what you wish me to do. You see I am anxious to begin the work at once.”

“Yes, my dear,” returned David Carter, blandly, “but you must not be too anxious. Take everything coolly and you will get along all the faster in the end. Haste is always objectionable when time is abundant. So, as it is as cheap sitting as standing, suppose we retire to a corner, take a seat and talk the matter over deliberately.”

He led the way to one of the benches, and when they were both seated, he continued:
“As you seem impatient to near what I have to impart I will not keep you in suspense, but open the subject at once. For reasons which it is not necessary to explain I hate the girl Bertha Bascomb, and would give my right arm to ruin her. ”

“I supposed as much,” returned Lisette. “and yet it is all very incomprehensible to me. Your brother did not know her—never saw her before—and since you hate her so bitterly how comes it that he never had any knowledge of her?”

“Now you are treading on forbidden ground,” returned David Carter, while a frown settled upon his sinister face, “and before we proceed farther in this matter, let it be distinctly understood between us that you are never to ask questions but only to obey orders. Or all others my brother must be kept in total ignorance of the true state of my feelings with regard to that girl, and you must never breathe a word to any human being concerning what may pass between us. If you cannot agree to these conditions this interview has lasted too long already, and we may as well separate as we met. If you remain true to me I promise you not only the restoration or your lost love and sweet revenge, but money as well—if you are false to me I will follow you to the world’s end but I will compass your ruin. This you will perceive, therefore, is a serious matter, and before you decide you had better reflect a moment. I do not wish to hurry you. I can wait!”

“That is unnecessary,” returned the girl, promptly, “my mind is made up, and now tell me, what do you propose?”

“I propose to ruin Bertha Bascomb, ” was the quick and malignant reply. The continuation of Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl, will be found in No. 28 of the New York Weekly, now ready, and for sale by every News Agent in the Union, and at the Store advertised on this sheet.

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