A DRUNKARD'S HOME.
THE two great
signs of summer in the court were evil smells and open windows.
The little houses, overtopped, and hemmed in by their taller
neighbours, seemed to gasp for breath; but the fresh breeze that
streamed down the reaches of the river, or blew from the Surrey
hills, passed over their heads, and left them gasping and breathing
the air that had already swept the tainted street and hovered over
the poisonous dust-heaps. A general languor prevailed, which
spread to the children at their play. They seemed to sicken in
the sunshine, and move about as if but half alive, till it was gone.
Little Joe had been sent to school, and even Bessie, the
small nurse and market-woman, was enjoying a respite, the last baby
being now able to run, or rather to sit, alone, and his successor
not having arrived as yet. The old governess had just then
opened her room as a sewing-school, where the children were to pay
twopence a week, and bring their own work; and Bessie's mother
gladly availed herself of it. She had no time to teach the
child herself, so she was sent to the school, duly admonished that
there she was to learn to win her bread. This was evidently a
happy time for the little woman. She almost justified the
belief of the inspector, who declared that he thought nature taught
little girls to sew, and that it was quite superfluous to teach them
in a school. When sewing-time was over, there were still
numerous demands upon her; but in the long summer evenings she could
sit upon the doorstep, free of care. Her favourite companion
was a little girl fresh from the country, who had a great at deal to
tell about the wonders and delights of her past life. Bessie
listened open-mouthed; she had never seen a green field, and it is
impossible to say what idea the country, as depicted by her little
friend, conveyed to her. A terrible mental poverty, when one
comes-to think of it!
The children were a perfect contrast: they were like light
and shade to each other. The roses of health had not yet faded
from the face of the country child; they had never bloomed for
little Bessie: yet she was the loveliest of the two. Her pale
face was framed in a mass of dark hair, which was so thick and
heavy, that, though quite unconfined, it seemed to be always smooth
and glossy. It would endure any amount of tossing and
tumbling, and then fall straight at a shake of the little head.
Bessie's eyes were large and dark and full of a soft wonder; and her
little full mouth stood slightly open, and showed two pearly teeth
in front. She did not strike you much at first, but when you
had looked at her once or twice, you would ask, involuntarily—
"How came a thing so lovely
In that unlovely place?
Each little limb thus moulded
With perfect fragile grace;
A soft touch in the tiny hands,
A sweet light on the face."
As they sat with their arms round each other, Bessie's
companion, having finished a lengthened recital, suggested the
propriety of her telling something now. There was a
pause, in which the little woman was evidently going over her past
life, to find that something. Then a wistful look came into
her face, and she said, with a sigh, "There's nothing to tell."
The court, the baby, the messages—those were all—and there was
"nothing to tell." It is to be feared, that little Bessie made
a mental reservation here. There were some things she could
have told—tragic things, which were transacted between the four
walls up-stairs, and which already threw their dismal shadows on the
child's heart. She could have told of waking on winter nights,
alone and in the dark, and listening for the tread of terrible,
unsteady steps, and for the sound of curses and of blows. She
could have told of sitting in childish vigil over the fire on the
unguarded hearth, while late on Saturday night the mother, with her
infant in her arms, sought her wretched husband from pot-house to
pot-house, to try and save something from the wreck of his weekly
earnings. What phantasmagoric tricks the shadows played her
then, full of fear, and terrible shrinking from the highest power
she knew, as her child-heart was! How they leaped up over the
roof, and stood hiding in the dark corners, till she was fain to
wake her little brother to keep her company, though he cried so
bitterly, and would not be comforted, except with sleep. Then,
the fire-flames would leap up and tempt them to play; but they were
too heavy-hearted for that; and at last she would creep into bed
with the little brother, dressed as she was, and be taken up
unconscious, and carried to her own corner by the poor mother, while
a prostrate form lay on the floor, in bestial slumber, too heavy to
The interregnum did not last long. The new baby came to
reign, and soon the mother rose and resumed her work, and Bessie was
again installed as nurse. But the little woman was never weary
of carrying this baby, any more than if it had been a doll. It
was a feather-weight, of course, to the last; and she was taller and
stronger too; and he never seemed to grow any bigger or any heavier,
but would wail and fret for whole days, carried up and down in her
arms; or else lie quite still in her lap, looking round with
wide-open eyes for a moment, and then closing them again, as if in
weariness. One day he closed them thus, and died.
"Oh, mother, mother!" cried Bessie, weeping bitterly, at the
inexplicable change; and the mother rose and took the dead baby to
her bosom, and did not weep at all.
And all that night, and all the next night, in the one room
of the family, lay the little body, and the working, and the eating,
and the sleeping went on as usual. But, on the Saturday night,
when father and mother were out, Bessie brought little Joe to look
at the dead baby, and they peeped with breathless awe under the
shrouds, and saw the little wax-like image, and touched the white
transparent cheek, and lifted the tiny hand.
And Bessie woke in the night, and looked up, resting on her
elbow, and saw the little coffin lying in the window, in the
moonlight, which the old shawl fastened across the casement failed
to shut out, and she trembled with instinctive fear, notwithstanding
Joe's positive assurance that the babies went to heaven, for he had
seen them going. Joe had been out in the world lately, and had
seen a company of small white clouds drifting over the open sky, and
had recognised the babies going to heaven.
The mother, too, awoke and missed her infant's fretful
wailing, and, from the darkness where she lay, she could see that
object too. She sees it, and she weeps with a soft sorrow, so
different from the hard, dry, aching misery she daily feels, that it
is almost joy.
There are few such homes that have not entertained one of
these little guests. They come and stay a few weeks, or
months, or years, seeming sent only to suffer and to die.
Patient sufferers, are those sinless ones—angels sent down to earth
for a season to draw up after them to God the hearts that clung to
them on earth; and, in most homes, the death of a little one makes,
for a time at least, a purer and gentler atmosphere. Kinder
words are spoken than have been uttered there, perhaps, for many a
day. Even the drunkard had felt the solemn presence, and there
had been neither bitter words nor unseemly acts while it was there;
but no sooner was the little body laid in its last resting-place,
than, as if to indemnify himself for the denial, Bessie's father
indulged in a prolonged and fearful fit of drinking.
Bessie had a real respite now, and a refuge with her kind
mistress from her dismal home. There was a grand school trip.
Three van-loads of children, from the streets and courts of the
neighbourhood, set off in the summer morning, shouting and singing.
Little Joe was there. His queer white face peeped through the
curtains of the van, working with the unwonted excitement like a
gutta-percha mask which some one was grotesquely manipulating from
behind. Thus he peeped and nodded at Bessie, as she looked
after him wistfully from the entrance of the court. She sighed
and went off to her work. The poor child was beginning to earn
a little at the sewing-school, where some coarse work was taken in
for those who could do it well enough to be useful.
However, there was going to be another trip, of a more select
kind, from which Bessie would not be left out. It was given by
a friend to some who, like Bessie, were not at school, and who, like
her, had never seen the country in their lives. And they were
to be taken into the country, and to play in a real garden and even
to dine there, and it was to be the great event of the year, perhaps
of all their lives.
It was on the evening of this day, when the great event was
over and the spring-cart had brought the children gaily back, that
little Joe knocked at the door of the shoemaker's room, and asked
softly, when it was opened to him, if Bessie was any better.
"I've brought her these quite safe," he said, holding out a basket
full of fresh strawberries.
"Come in," said the mother, in a sad voice.
Joe looked round; the father was not there. The younger
children were in bed, though it was still light, and Bessie was
lying in her corner on the floor. She turned her head as Joe
came up to her, and his white face lengthened woefully as he looked.
A handkerchief stained with blood was tied round the mouth of his
companion. He went down on his knees with the berries.
"Are you very ill?" he whispered.
Bessie's only answer was a look out of her mournful eyes; and
then she closed them, and the tears stole through the long lashes.
"She can't speak to you," said the mother, in a choking
"Will you take some strawberries?" asked Joe.
"She can't eat, either," said the woman, with a sob, as a
muffled sound came through the handkerchief, and the eyes opened,
and looked wishfully at the basket.
Joe set it down and began to cry.
"Perhaps: she'll be bettor tomorrow," said the mother,
softly, and the boy rose to go; but first he lifted the little hand
that lay on the dingy coverlit, and put it to his lips. He had
never seen the act in his life; it came straight out of the grace of
his tender heart.
All the week Bessie had been anticipating a great treat—the
first treat of-any kind that had ever fallen to her lot. All
the week her little bare feet had tripped about more lightly than
was their wont, and some one had even heard her singing. Her
feet were bare, for her shoes had worn out; but her father was
making a new pair for the grand occasion. Her mother had
washed and ironed her pink printed frocks, and made her bonnet up
quite smart; so there was no wonder that she was very happy.
All the week she had watched the progress of the shoes, for
they were taken up only at odd times, when there was not much else
in hand. As the day drew near, her happiness was somewhat
clouded with anxiety about their being ready in time. Her
father was finishing, first, something that would bring money—an
imperious necessity, to which little Bessie had learned to bow—and
it was now coming to the very day before the day. But they
could still be finished in time, and now he had nothing else to do.
In the morning he went out for a little, and Bessie became very
anxious indeed, as hours passed and he did not return. Still
she hoped they might be done yet; but her mother only sighed
heavily, when she consulted her as to the possibility; for she knew
that they could not, and she was grieved that her little daughter
should be so sorely disappointed.
There he was at last. Bessie had not given up hope,
from the smile that brightened her face at his coming—a greeting
that was seldom his to deserve or to obtain. The mother gave
an inquiring glance at her husband's face; but seemed somewhat
reassured when she saw that his step was firm, though he had
evidently been drinking, and was in one of his savage tempers.
Bessie met him with an eager question about her shoes.
"Oh, father! can you do them yet?"
Bessie was standing in his way—was looking up into his face
as she seldom looked there. Perhaps all that was left of
conscience in the man stung him to the quick. Raising his arm,
he thrust her savagely aside. It was an unexpected blow, and
the child reeled before she came down. An iron pot was
standing on the hearth, and on it she fell with a cry. The
mother saw the brutal act, and the blood streaming on her hearth;
and not stopping, even to lift the child, she threw herself upon her
husband, as if she would have dashed him lifted his hand to her in
the presence of their children, and she had never been roused to
fury. She had only cowered and trembled. It was now his
turn to cower before the indignant passion of his wife, and,
muttering something about not meaning to hurt her, he slunk out of
Bessie had risen to her feet, and stood with both her hands
clasped over her mouth, from which the blood was running between
"My heart's fairly broken!" exclaimed the mother, in anguish,
as she bent over her, and gently, but forcibly, removed her hands,
disclosing a great cut, dividing the full upper lip, while the two
pretty pearly teeth were broken and ruined. She washed away
the blood and tears from poor Bessie's face, and carried her to the
nearest druggist, who bound up the wound; and Bessie was put to bed
sick and faint. And there she sobbed herself to sleep; and
there she lay while her little companions, having called for her in
vain, set out for their happy day.
It was two or three weeks before Bessie went about as usual;
and then it was with a face quite marred and disfigured—a face on
which only the mockery of a smile could ever appear again—and the
child's smile had been a very lovely one. There was a gap
where the shining teeth had been, and an ugly scar contracted the
lip. She was too young to feel the loss of beauty, or to
experience the abjectness which the consciousness of repulsiveness
gives; yet Bessie had a way now of holding her right hand over her
mouth, whenever it was free to do so.
After an absence of two or three days, her father had come
back, his wife making no inquiries whatever concerning him.
But for some time he was more steady and sober. Bessie got her
shoes; and even a new frock and tippet, only she avoided him
constantly; and once, when he would have laid his hand on her
shoulder, she gave such a convulsive start, that he never attempted
to touch her again. In the mirror of his child's eyes did he
see the likeness of a fiend.
"How did you come by it?" said her mistress, examining her
face on the day she made her first appearance.
"It was my father," she answered, simply.
"The brute!" exclaimed the little lady, who had never been
heard to use strong language before.
"The brute!" muttered Joe Rudkin, and clenched his fist.
ON THE BRINK.
THE shoemaker was
by no means the only drunkard in the court. A spirit, whose
power amounts to a kind of demoniacal possession, seems to haunt
such localities, constantly trying to lay hold of those who live
there, and to drag them over the brink of the great gulf of
intemperance, where he holds his victims, "tied and bound with the
chain of their sin," till he hands them over to the keeping of
death. To the harassed with work and anxiety, to the depressed
with care and weariness, to the half-starved on coarse and
insufficient food, to the half-poisoned by foul and lifeless air,
the drink-demon is ever at hand, to offer relief from anxiety and
depression, and to rally the sinking powers by the fatal glass.
It would take not one chapter more, but many, to tell of his
triumphs, even on one small spot of city ground; and every triumph
might be written in tears and blood.
On a Monday, and it might have been on other days as well, as
the clock of a neighbouring church pointed to twelve, a group of
women might be seen hastily issuing from a gin-shop in the
neighbourhood of the court. Some had infants in their arms,
and little children hanging by their skirts. They were
evidently, every one of them, victims to intemperance. Looking
up to the clock, they hurried away in all directions, but not till I
had recognised one of them, as she ran past and disappeared it
court. On asking the meaning of their hasty retreat, I was
told that the stroke of twelve warned them to rush off and "singe up
something for their husbands' dinners," most of whom were employed
at an iron-works close at hand.
The woman I had recognised was the wife, of an iron-worker.
They held a single room at No. 3. Smith—for he held the prolific
title of his trade—was a first-rate workman, and earned from
thirty-six to fifty shillings a week. He had only two boys, of
eight and ten, all their successors having died in infancy—the last
overlaid and suffocated between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
It was called, no doubt, an accidental death; but the cause which
led to it could hardly be called accidental, for it occurred
regularly every Saturday. Neither husband nor wife ever went
to bed sober on the last night of the week.
Both had gone over the brink long ago, and utterly hopeless
and infatuated was the life they led. When the works closed on
Saturday afternoon, Smith came out with his pockets full, and made
his way, with a knot of his "mates," to the "Hammerman's Arms," to
pay up his weekly score, and have what they called a "wet."
The public-house was kept by one of the sub-foremen of the works;
and this man would often pay a good hand for a piece of work, and
set it down as his own, to make his employers believe that he was
active in their service; while he was, in reality, idling away his
time at his tavern, and inducing the men to do the same. Of
course he knew their respective means, and would allow them to run
up any score which they could pay off at the end of the week.
He was even very obliging in the matter of lending a shilling or two
for other purposes, when his customers ran short of cash, probably
to buy the necessaries of life for themselves and their families.
Thus Smith's supply of beer never failed. It was only on
Saturday that he hastened the consummation by stronger liquors; but
he was never entirely sober at any time of the week, nor, for that
matter, at any hour of the day, and his score was, therefore, a very
At the preliminary part of the Saturday's proceedings the
wife did not interfere. She knew the hour at which the works
closed, and could calculate the time which her husband would take to
settle up at the "Hammerman's Arms;" and she usually met him as he
issued thence with what remained of his earnings. Then the
pair adjourned together to another public-house, where they shared
the drink, if not the money, with wonderful amity. They would
then pay for the provisions taken up at the greengrocer's during the
week, lay up a little stock for the morrow, and begin the evening's,
drinking in earnest. Later, they might be seen, both
intoxicated, wending their unsteady way homeward, the man a few
yards in advance of the woman, having parted company in some drunken
brawl. On Sunday, the drink was consumed at home, the children
fetching it from the public-house, and getting a share of the
half-poisonous stuff for themselves. Very little money was
left by Monday, the wife generally managing to secrete a shilling or
two for her own private delectation on that day.
In spite of all this, Smith would make his appearance at the
works, perhaps after breakfast, on Monday, though it would take two
or three glasses of gin, or even brandy, to steady his skilful
hands. Neither Sunday nor Saturday saw any difference in his
appearance. The same grime-covered face and hands; the same
grease-coated, ancient garments—indeed, the grease was considered
necessary to the adhesion of their parts; and the same battered hat
was pressed over his eyes. He was always at work; and, even
when his head would seem hopelessly muddled, his hands did not lose
their strength or cunning. Thus he was not dismissed, though
some of his doings were more than questionable, and more than
The men worked partly by time and partly by piece, according
to the nature of the work they were engaged upon; and it was a
curious fact that Smith could make more when the two methods were
combined, than he could make by either of them singly. He had
solved the problem by adding two and two and making five. But
this is so common that an employer has said, "If I send three men to
a job, it would pay me to employ a fourth to look after them."
If the time they waste, or use for their own purposes, is charged to
a customer of their master's, they think there is no harm done.
There are some who hold that constant indulgence in drinking
produces a species of moral insanity, and I am inclined to think
that it is so.
In the same house lived a young man employed at the
iron-works. He was newly-married, and his wife was a pretty,
young creature, evidently without much strength either of body or
mind. She seemed to be very proud of her husband, and of all
his belongings. Their room was nicely furnished, and boasted a
book-shelf, which I was invited to inspect, the young wife telling
me that her Tom was "a great reader." Among the volumes were
Rollin's "Ancient History," "Half-Hours with the Best Authors," an
illustrated Shakespeare, and a book on mechanics; but, for the most
part, they consisted of the better class of popular serials, well
preserved and carefully bound. The young wife was very anxious
that I should see her husband; but he was, of course, absent at his
At length, one-day—it was a partial holiday—she opened the
door, and, seeing me, whispered, with an air of triumph, "Come in;
he's at home to-day."
On entering, I saw a really fine-looking young man, with a
face full of intellect and determination, but grave and sad in
expression. There was a slight air of languor in his attitude
that gave me the impression of delicate health, or, rather, delicate
temperament—that susceptibility to unhealthful influences which is
so marked in some highly-nervous organisations. He was not
particularly civil, and not at all of his wife's communicative turn,
so I went away, obliged to content myself with a rapid survey of the
It was some time before an opportunity for further
acquaintance occurred; and in the meantime, I thought the young wife
was looking somewhat pale and downcast. She told me that her
husband, with the aid of a few of his fellows, and with the promise
of support from others, had started a club, and was working hard at
it. I could see very well that she hated the club with her
whole heart: nor was she so very much to blame for this.
From her point of view, it was certainly rather hard that,
after spending the day, with the exception of the dinner-hour,
alone, she should be left to spend the evening alone too. To
see her husband come in and swallow his tea with an abstracted air,
and be off "horganising," as she styled it, till ten or eleven
o'clock at night; and to have him return then, unable to speak with
exhaustion, was rather provoking. It was a great deal worse
than the reading, and she had been a little jealous of that at
first; but, then, she could sit and look at him, and watch his
grave, handsome face light up from within with the living light of
thought and fancy or feeling; and he would read out, or explain what
had moved him, till she was completely won. But she had often
a good cry over the club—poor little soul! She was told that
it would keep many a man out of the public-house, besides improving
their minds; but she could not expand into a social reformer all at
once; she could not get beyond her Tom, and she could not see that
his mind could by any possibility be improved.
The next time I found the young husband at home; he was
suffering from a slight attack of inflammation. The club
formed a topic of interest between us, and I was speedily on a more
confidential footing. I was invited to visit the club, which I
promised to do, as soon as its secretary was well enough to be at
his post again.
One evening, accordingly, I made my way to the club. It
was at the corner of a little sidestreet, and exactly opposite was a
gin-palace, which had taken in two or three houses on both sides of
the angle. The promoters of the club had taken a house, into
which one of them entered as tenant, paying rent for the part he
occupied. His wife engaged to supply tea and coffee, and other
simple refreshments, getting a small allowance weekly for her
trouble, while the profit on their consumption, if any, was to go to
the concern. A subscription had been got up among the men, to
enable the club to start free of debt. With this they bought
wood, and two, who were carpenters, made the plain white benches and
tables; one painted and papered the rooms at the cost of the
material; while the secretary furbished up the old gas-fittings, and
did the repairs in general. I found that he had also
contributed his entire stock of books, for I recognised them on the
shelves, among others contributed in the same way. The daily
and some weekly papers were subscribed for; and thus they started.
In the lower room, which consisted of the two parlours thrown
into one by the removal of the folding-doors, there was a perfect
babel of tongues. This was the coffee-room; and the men were
talking over their tea and coffee: some were smoking, and a group in
one of the corners were playing and watching a game at backgammon.
In the reading-room above, perfect silence prevailed. About a
dozen young men sat quietly over books or papers, evidently absorbed
with what they were about.
I was more impressed than I had expected, or than the poverty
and simplicity of the arrangements might seem to warrant. It
was their very poverty and simplicity that was so impressive.
I uttered a few words, which kindled the enthusiasm of the
secretary, as he led the way to the little room, or rather closet,
in which he transacted the evening's business.
"Yes," he said, "you say that it is a great good to these
young fellows; but I say it is simply salvation. You have only
to go over the way and see for yourself. There they are going
to ruin as fast as the demon of drink can drive them. We can
only catch those who are on the brink; after a while it is useless
It was too true: I knew it.
"Most of the men you have here are unmarried, I should
think," I said.
"Yes, and they are the most in need of us, and the most
exposed to temptation. Their lodgings are dreary enough; and
if they turn out of an evening, there's only the streets, with the
cold or the rain, or the crowds; and there stands the public-house,
ready, warm and dry, and with a seat to sit down on, and plenty of
company, and their mates crying, 'Come along.' I know what it
"But you would not think it well for the married men to come
here regularly," I returned. "Would it not leave their wives
too much alone, and perhaps expose their temptations, in their
"They need not come here every night," he replied.
"Things aren't always straight at home in such places as we have to
live in, and when a man would be in the way he can go to the club,
and have his tea and an hour's chat, or reading, and go home to find
things put to rights, or sufficiently rested to bear a hand in
righting them. He brings a different air into the house with
him. It seems to make men healthier, as well as happier, to
get something into their lives that's neither eating nor drinking,
nor working for meat and drink."
"I well believe it does. In the lowest, as well its in
the highest sense, it is true that man does not live by bread alone.
The domestic affections will not lose, but gain, by the cultivation
of the social. But what about the women? They seem to me
to stand as much in need of improvement as the men. If the men
are improved and the women left behind, the improvement will never
avail the class. It will be all to do over again in the next
generation. The comfort and independence of the workman, it
seems to me, depends, to a great extent, on his wife; and the
character of the working men of the future depends still more on the
mother of his children."
"Yes," he said, bitterly. "My mother had four as fine
fellows of sons as ever sat at a working man's table. My
father sent us to school, and saw that we were kept pretty
comfortable as long as he lived—it was small comfort he got for
himself; but when he died, everything went to wreck. We lads
often came home and not a bit or a sup for us in the house, nor a
fire to warm us. Everything was sold or pawned for drink; and,
what was worse, I believe the love of it was born with us—we sucked
it in with her milk. Many a time I've almost ran along the
street, as if I could escape the craving that way; my head swimming,
not with drink, but with the desire for it: and many a time I
yielded. Thank God, the temptation grows less and less,
instead of growing more and more, as it was before I got married.
Yes, I was on the very verge. My brothers all went over.
It killed them all!" he said, fiercely, and as if he had to do with
a deadly incarnate foe.
"You exclude beer from the club, of course," I said, after a
"Entirely," he added. "I am not a pledged abstainer,
and I don't think we have any among us. I hate it too much to
need the pledge; but I mean to take it, for it helps to hold some
back when nothing else will; and, at any rate, it's a declaration of
The next time I called on the young wife, she showed me the
abstainer's card, framed and glazed, and hung up over the
mantelshelf. She was getting reconciled to the club, too; for
there had been a series of tea-parties, and the wives and
sweethearts had been invited to tea in detachments. The hard
work was over, and Tom was more at home; and, somehow, it was not so
dreary when she knew exactly the place where he was, and how it
looked, and what he was about.
ONE of the top
rooms in No. 4 was occupied by a maker of mourning flowers.
The ghastliness of these miserable mockeries of the gayest things in
the world struck me for the first time, as I stood at her little
table and inspected her work. I thought I had seldom seen a
more melancholy occupation, and when I looked in the face of the
widow, it struck me that I had seldom seen a more melancholy face.
I knew nothing about her, except that she was a widow, that
she supported herself by her trade, and that she had three children,
two boys at work in the neighbourhood, and a little girl who made
flowers along with her. She was very silent, and evidently in
feeble health. The little girl, too, looked thin and pale.
I was interested in them, and in their work, and learned some of its
details as I watched, for a few moments at a time, the long white
fingers of the girl rapidly stringing the dismal petals on their
threads of wire, or twirling the wires together and winding the
Mourning flowers are made for the most part in the homes of
the workers, the only capital required being a pair of scissors,
some clippings of crape, and some thread and wire. The widow
and her child had to work late and early to ensure a living, but
their work was pretty regular. Finer flowers have their
special seasons, and those who make them must work while they may.
They are busy from February to the end of May, and from September to
the close of the year, and must remain almost idle during the other
four months. They cannot make stock, because there is no
knowing what flower may be the favourite next. If they made
lilies, roses alone might be in vogue; and if they manufactured
daisies, ladies might prefer dandelions for anything that could be
predicted to the contrary. But the mourning flowers had few
fluctuations. It might be said of them that they had all seasons for
their own, as was said of that death of which they were the growth.
Violets, too, were perennial, and these the widow and her child made
in endless bunches, getting the material given out to them by the
large dealers. The work tried the eyes sorely, especially in
the winter months when it had to be done by candlelight. The
mother wore glasses, and the girl's eyes looked red and weak.
She was quite a curiosity, that little girl. What was
melancholy in the mother, appeared in her under the form of a
preternatural gravity. It would, I felt, have been a kind of
insult to greet that child with a jest.
It was a hot midsummer day, bright and breathless;—such a day
as determines the well-to-do Londoner, long meditating the relative
attractions of Ramsgate or Margate, Herne Bay, Broadstairs, or
Brighton, to fix at once on the locality of his retreat. It
was a day made for—
"Soft slumberings in the open eye of
And all the listless joy of summer shades."
The pavement was like the floor of an oven. Men and women who
had to tread these pavements, hopeless of any retreat save the last,
when the green sward would stretch above instead of beneath them,
craved for something "to put a bit of life into them," for the water
was seething in the cisterns, and the air stagnating in the streets.
Dismal as the poor quarters of London are in the winter season, they
are far more dismal, to my thinking, in summer. The contrast
between the brightness of the season and the squalor of the scene is
intense. The houses look smaller and dingier in the higher,
clearer air. The cast-off garments look more faded and torn.
The food appears, and is, staler and more disgusting—the butter and
bacon in a melting mood, the vegetables half decayed, the sight and
smell of the cooked meat intolerable. The people, too, look
more worn and weary, more disreputable and depressed, more unwashed
and unslept—altogether, more hopelessly unhappy, than in winter.
I have noticed already how the children creep about in the sunshine,
and seem to sicken in it. Sickness here is like the mourning
flowers, never out of season; but among the little children of the
courts and alleys it is most in season in the summertime, the time
in which all other things revel and rejoice. At such a time it
is sad that they should pine and die. The winter brings to
them its coughs and colds, and the spring its debility; but the
fatal fever, and the still more fatal dysentery, wait for summer.
Then the deadly influences of impure air and impure water, and
unwholesome food, are in their highest force, and tell fearfully on
the lives of the little ones.
More than one little coffin had already been carried out of
the court, and there, in the broad sunshine of the midsummer day,
stood at the entrance the shabby black hearse of varnished wood,
looking more shabby and more miserable, like everything else about
there, in the glow.
A coffin was being carried out by the undertakers, and this
time it was not a baby's coffin. I stood aside to let it pass.
The room from which it had been brought was that of the widow, and I
had little doubt that it was she who filled it, though I had seen
her at her work the week before.
I went straight to her room at the top of the house, and,
finding the door unclosed, entered without further ceremony.
It was a strange scene I encountered there. Two boys and the
little girl stood in the middle of the floor, and the girl was
engaged in pinning a bit of crape round the cap of the youngest boy.
They were very small, delicate-looking children, all three. I
looked about for friend or neighbour, who might be helping the
orphans, by making the last sad arrangements for them; but there was
no one to be seen. In a little, the eldest of the small boys
turned round, cap in hand, and seeing a stranger, said, simply:
"I am sorry for that, my little man," I answered. "I
hope you have got some friends here."
"We haven't got no friends," said the little lad, in a
matter-of-fact tone, and not in the least to excite commiseration.
"You've got some one to help you, have you not ?" I asked.
The boy shook his head.
"Mother sent me for Nurse Adams when she was took very bad,"
put in the girl, having taken the last pin out of her mouth, "and
she stopped and laid her out."
"And where is Nurse Adams now ?" I ventured to inquire.
"A laying of somebody else out," she answered, with an awful
gravity, in which there was nothing whatever of emotion.
"And what do you mean to do?" I said to the boy.
He did not seem to comprehend to what the question referred.
The girl took up the answer, by saying, promptly, "You'll let
us have the room for the same rent?"
"But whom do you mean to live with?" I asked.
"We mean to live with one another," replied the boy.
"And who will be responsible for the rent?" I said, in
mingled curiosity and wonder.
"Don't you be afeared, I'll pay it," replied the boy,
"And how old are you?"
"And how long have you been at work?"
"Three years," he answered, "and I can make six shillings a
week, and Charley"—pointing to the younger boy—"is ten, and he can
make three shillings; but I can't stay any longer. I've
stopped at home to-day to bury mother, and they're a-waiting for
The two boys were going to the funeral, but, for some reason
connected with scanty purse and still scantier wardrobe, the little
girl was to stay at home.
I stepped out into the street with the children, and saw them
mounted on the body of the wooden hearse, behind the driver's seat,
and driven away by the shabby undertakers.
I felt puzzled as to whether I should return to the other
child left behind so forlornly, or send some kindly workman's wife
to help and comfort her. I resolved to return first and see
what I could make of her. I expected to find her crying, now
that the great effort of sending away the funeral was over.
But no. She was sitting, apparently thinking, with great
"You'll want the money, I suppose," she said, rising on
seeing me re-enter "Mother left it all right."
"There is no need for you to pay the rent this week," I
answered. "You must tell me how you are going to live.
How are you to pay for the funeral?" I added, seeing it was best to
descend to particulars.
"Mother had the money laid up along with her grave-clothes.
I've known where to find it when it was wanted this long time," said
the child, "only we'll be rather put to it this week, for we're all
off work, you see."
"And what are you going to work at?" I asked. "I'll
carry on mother's business, and keep the house," she replied.
I looked down at the little creature. "How long have
you been learning the business then?"
"I've been at it six years," she said, loftily, as if
scorning the idea of being a learner; "I am older than my brothers.
I am fourteen."
It was said with the air of forty, and a sigh of
responsibility; and she did not look more than twelve.
"But you can't do everything—wash, and cook the dinners, for
example, and carry on the business, too," I objected.
"Oh, we won't want any dinners," she answered. "Mother
and I had no time to cook them. We'll have supper. It
saves the daylight, that does, and anything will do for me in the
middle of the day."
"But your brothers, where do they get dinner?"
"They get it at the shop. They has potatoes and
pudding—peas pudding or baked plum—for a penny ha'penny, or
sometimes twopence. If they pay twopence, they may sit down
and have some gravy. I have bread and butter, and sometimes a
She held out the two shillings; but I put it back, not
without misgiving lest I should touch the young though hardy plant
of independence with the blight of almsgiving.
"If you had left I should have lost a week, you know, and as
you are like new tenants, you shall begin payment next week."
I said this in as business-like a tone as I could muster, and
in as business-like a fashion it was accepted. Perhaps she
thought it was a bribe to retain so responsible a housekeeper.
I had determined to keep my eye upon this strange little household,
and doing so I could see that it went on to admiration.
"You are very busy," I said one day as she looked up at me
from a heap of work before her. She had on her mother's
spectacles, and looked more preternaturally grave than ever.
"Well, yes; and I can't make out what's come to my eyes,
they're so bad. I have mother's spectacles, and that made them
easy for a while; but now they're getting worse than ever.
It's the black that does it," she concluded, oracularly.
"I have no doubt the spectacles have made them worse," I
said. "They are not fit for such young eyes as yours."
On examination of the spectacles, I knew this was so, and
easily made her understand how really hurtful they were. I
promised to send her a cooling wash, adding, "The only thing they
want is more rest."
"And that's just what they can't have," she replied.
"I've been thinking," she went on, "of going out to work. I
could soon make more at that, and not have to work so hard either;
but then the house wouldn't be so comfortable like, and I wouldn't
be here when Charley and Jem come home. Mother thought o'
that, and she told us to stick together."
In their long, lonely hours of work the mother had made a
confidential companion of her thoughtful little girl, had made her
the sharer of all her anxieties, and cares, and plans for the
future; and had depended upon her to keep the little household
together when she would be with them no more.
"Mother told us to stick together," she repeated, "and mother
was right. Boys is bad to manage when once they're let on the