Round the Court II.

Home Up Poems by Isa Duchess Agnes Songs of Consolation Poems: a Miscellany The Argosy (1866) Tales on the Parables Tales on The Parables Poetry Reviews Cotton Famine Peggy Oglivie Esther West Fanny's Fortune A Heroine of Home Little Folk's History Deepdale Vicarage Miscellanea Main Index Site Search
 


 

[Previous Page]


CHAPTER IV.

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 be moved.

    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 voice.

    "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 the house.

    Bessie had risen to her feet, and stood with both her hands clasped over her mouth, from which the blood was running between her, fingers.

    "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.


――――♦――――

 
CHAPTER V.

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 long one.

    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 half-suspected.

    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 work.

    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 outer man.

    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 to try."

    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 is."

    "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 turn?"

    "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 little pause.

    "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 war."

    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.


――――♦――――

 
CHAPTER VI.

MOURNING FLOWERS.


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 stalk.

    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 Heaven,
 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: "Mother's dead."

    "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, proudly.

    "And how old are you?"

    "I'm twelve."

    "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 us."

    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 composure.

    "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 saveloy."

    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 loose."


――――♦――――
 

 



[Home] [Up] [Poems by Isa] [Duchess Agnes] [Songs of Consolation] [Poems: a Miscellany] [The Argosy (1866)] [Tales on the Parables] [Tales on The Parables] [Poetry Reviews] [Cotton Famine] [Peggy Oglivie] [Esther West] [Fanny's Fortune] [A Heroine of Home] [Little Folk's History] [Deepdale Vicarage] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk