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[-43-]

CHAPTER XVII.

A DEN OF HORRORS.

 HOWEVER filthy, unhealthy, and repulsive the entire neighbourhood of West Street (Smithfield), Field Lane, and Saffron Hill, may appear at the present day, it was far worse some years ago. There were then but few cesspools; and scarcely any of those which did exist possessed any drains. The knackers' yards of Cow Cross, and the establishments in Castle Street where horses' flesh is boiled down to supply food for the dogs and cats of the metropolis, send forth now, as they did then, a foetid and sickening odour which could not possibly be borne by a delicate stomach. At the windows of those establishments the bones of the animals are hung to bleach, and offend the eye as much as the horrible stench of the flesh acts repugnantly to the nerves. Upwards of sixty horses a day are frequently slaughtered in each yard; and many of them are in the last stage of disease when sent to their "long home." Should there not be a rapid demand for the meat on the part of the itinerant purveyors of that article for canine and feline favourites, it speedily becomes putrid; and a smell, which would alone appear sufficient to create a pestilence, pervades the neighbourhood.
    As if nothing should be wanting to render that district as filthy and unhealthy as possible, water is scarce. There is in this absence of a plentiful supply of that wholesome article, an actual apology for dirt. Some of the houses have small back yards, in which the inhabitants keep pigs. A short time ago, an infant belonging to a poor widow, who occupied a back room on the ground-floor of one of these hovels, died, and was laid upon the sacking of the bed while the mother went out to make arrangements for its interment. During her absence a pig entered the room from the yard, and feasted upon the dead child's face!
    In that densely populated neighbourhood that we are describing hundreds of families each live and sleep in one room. When a member of one of these families happens to die, the corpse is kept in the close room where the rest still continue to live and sleep. Poverty frequently compels the unhappy relatives to keep the body for days - aye, and weeks. Rapid decomposition takes place ;- animal life generates quickly; and in four-and-twenty hours myriads of loathsome animalculae are seen crawling about. The very undertakers' men fall sick at these disgusting - these revolting spectacles.
    The wealthy classes of society are far too ready to reproach the miserable poor for things which are really misfortunes and not faults. The habit of whole families sleeping together in one room destroys all sense of shame in the daughters: and what guardian then remains for their virtue? But, alas! a horrible - an odious crime often results from that poverty which thus huddles brothers and sisters, aunts and nephews, all together in one narrow room - the crime of incest!
    When a disease - such as the small-pox or scarlatina - breaks out in one of those crowded houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood; the consequences are frightful: the mortality is as rapid as that which follows the footsteps of the plague!
    These are the fearful mysteries of that hideous district which exists in the very heart of this great metropolis. From St. John-street to Saffron Hill - from West-street to Clerkenwell Green, is a maze of' narrow lanes, choked up with dirt, pestiferous with nauseous odours, and swarming with a population that is born, lives, and dies, amidst squalor, penury, wretchedness, and crime.
    Leading out of Holborn, between Field Lane and Ely Place, is Upper Union Court - a narrow lane forming a thoroughfare for only foot passengers. The houses in this court are dingy and gloomy: the sunbeams never linger long there; and should an Italian-boy pass through the place, he does not atop to waste his music upon the inhabitants. The dwellings are chiefly let out in lodgings; and through the open windows upon the ground-floor may occasionly be seen the half-starved families of mechanics crowding round the scantily-supplied table. A few of the lower casements are filled with children's book, pictures of actors and highwaymen glaringly coloured, and lucifer-matches, twine, sweet-stuff, cotton, &c. At one door there stands an oyster-stall, when the comestible itself is in season: over another hangs a small board with a mangle painted upon it. Most of the windows on the ground-floors announce rooms to let, or lodgings for single men; and perhaps notice may be seen better written than the rest, that artificial-flower makers are required at that address.
    It was about nine o'clock in the evening when two little children - a boy of seven and a girl of five - walked slowly up this court, hand in hand, and crying bitterly. They were both clothed in rags, and had neither shoes nor stockings upon their feet. Every now and then they stopped, and the boy turned towards his little sister, and endeavoured to console her with kind words and kisses.
    "Don't cry so, dear," he said: "I'll tell mother that it was all my fault that we couldn't bring home any more money; and so she'll beat me worst. Don't cry - there's a good girl - pray don't!"
    And the poor little fellow endeavoured to calm his own grief in order to appease the fears of his sister. 
    Those children had now reached the door of the house in which their mother occupied an attic; but they paused upon the step, evincing a mortal repugnance to proceed any farther. At length the little [-44-] boy contrived by promises and caresses to hush the violence of his sister's grief; and they entered the house, the door of which stood open for the accommodation of the lodgers.
    Hand in hand these poor children ascended the dark and steep staircase, the boy whispering consolation in the girl's ears. At length they reached the door of the attic: and there they stood for a few moments.
    "Now, Fanny dear, don't cry, there's a good girl; pray don't now - and I'll buy you some nice pears to-morrow with the first halfpenny I get, even if I shouldn't get another, and if mother beats me till I'm dead when we come home."
    The boy kissed his sister once more, and then opened the attic-door.
    A man in a shabby black coat, and with an immense profusion of hair about his hang-dog countenance, was sitting on one side of a good fire, smoking a pipe. A thin, emaciated, but vixenish looking woman was arranging some food upon the table for supper. The entire furniture of the room consisted of that table, three broken chairs, and a filthy mattress in one corner.
    As soon as the boy opened the door, he seemed for a moment quite surprised to behold that man at the fireside: then, in another instant, he clapped his little hands joyously together, and exclaimed, "Oh! how glad I am: here's father come home again!"
    "Father's come home again!" echoed the girl; and the two children rushed up to their parent with the most pure - the most unfeigned delight.
    "Curse your stupidity, you fools," cried the man, brutally repulsing his children; "you've nearly broke my pipe."
    The boy fall back, abashed and dismayed: the little girl burst into tears.
    "Come, none of this humbug," resumed the man; "let's know what luck you've had to-day, since your mother says that she's been obliged to send you out on the tramp since I've been laid up for this last six months in the jug."
    "Yes, and speak out pretty plain, too, Master Harry," said the mother in a shrill menacing tone; "and none of your excuses, or you'll know what you have got to expect."
    "Please, mother," said the boy, slowly taking some halfpence from his pocket, "poor little Fanny got all this. I was so cold and hungry I couldn't ask a soul; so if it ain't enough, mother, you must beat me - and not poor little Fanny."
    As the boy uttered these words in a tremulous tone, and with tears trickling down his face, he got before his sister, in order to shield her, as it were from his mother's wrath.
    "Give it here, you fool!" cried the woman, darting forward, and seizing hold of the boy's hand containing the halfpence: then, having hastily glanced over the amount, she exclaimed, "You vile young dog! I'll teach you to come home here with your excuses! I'll cut your liver out of ye, I will!"
    "How much has he brought ?" demanded the man.
    "How much! Why not more than enough to pay for the beer," answered the woman indignantly. "Eightpence-halfpenny - and that's every farthing! But won't I take it out in his hide, that's all?"
    The woman caught hold of the boy, and dealt him a tremendous blow upon the back with her thin bony fist. He fell upon his knees, and begged for mercy His unnatural parent levelled a volley of abuse at him, mingled with oaths and filthy expressions. and then beat him - dashed him upon the floor - kicked him - all but stamped upon his poor body as he writhed at her feet.
    His screams were appalling.
    Then came the turn of the girl. The difference in the years of the children did not cause any with regard to their chastisement; but while the unnatural mother dealt her heavy blows upon the head, neck, breast, and back of the poor little creature, the boy clasped his hands together, exclaiming, "O mother! it was all my fault - pray don't beat little Fanny - pray don't!" Then forgetting his own pain, he threw himself before his sister to protect her - a noble act of self-devotion in so young a boy, and for which he only received additional punishment.
    At length the mother sate down exhausted; and the poor lad drew his little sister into a corner, and endeavoured to soothe her.
    The husband of that vile woman had remained on moved in his seat, quietly smoking his pipe, while this horrible scene took place; and if he did not actually enjoy it, he was very far from disapproving of it.
    "There," said the woman, gasping for breath "that'll teach them to mind how they came home another time with less than eighteenpence in their pockets. One would actually think it was the people's fault, and not the children's: but it ain't - for people grows more charitable every day. The more humbug, the more charity."
    "Right enough there," growled the man. "A reg'lar knowing beggar can make his five bob a day. He can walk through a matter of sixty streets; and in each street he can get a penny. He's sure a' that. Well, there's his five bob."
    "To be sure," cried the woman: "and therefore such nice-looking little children as our'n couldn't help getting eighteen-pence if they was to try, the lazy vagabonds! What would ha' become of me all the time that you was in the Jug this last bout, if they hadn't have worked better than they do now? As it is, every thing's up the spout - all made away with —"
    "Well, we'll devilish soon have 'em all down again," interrupted the man. "Dick will be here presently; and he and I shall soon settle some job or another. But hadn't you better give them kids a their supper, and make 'em leave off snivellin' afore Dick comes?"
    "So I will, Bill," answered the woman; and throwing the children each a piece of bread, she added, in a cross tone, "And now tumble into bed, and make haste about it; and if you don't hold that blubbering row I'll take the poker to you this time."
    The little boy gave the larger piece of bread to his sister; and, having divested her of her rags, he made her as comfortable as he could on the filthy mattress, covering her over not only with her clothes but also with his own. He kissed her affectionately, but without making any noise with his lips, for fear that that should irritate his mother; and then lay down beside her.
    Clasped in each other's arms, those two children of poverty - the victims of horrible and daily cruelties - repulsed by a father whose neck they had a longed to encircle with their little arms, and whose hand they had vainly sought to cover with kisses; trembling even at the looks of a mother whom they loved in spite of all her harshness towards them, and a from whose lips one word - one single word of kind-[-45-]ness would have gladdened their poor hearts; under such circumstances, we say, did these persecuted but affectionate infants, still smarting with the pain of cruel blows, and with tears upon their cheeks, thus did they sink into slumber in each other's arms!
    Merciful God! it makes the blood boil to think that this is no over-drawn picture - that there is no exaggeration in these details; but that there really exist monsters in a human form - wearing often, too, the female shape - who make the infancy and early youth of their offspring one continued hell - one perpetual scene of blows, curses, and cruelties! Oh! for how many of our fellow-creatures have we to blush:- how many demons are there who have assumed our mortal appearance, who dwell amongst us, and who set us examples the most hideous - the most appalling!
    As soon as the children were in bed, the woman went out, and returned in a few minutes with two pots of strong beer-purchased with the alms that day bestowed by the charitable upon her suffering offspring.
    She and her husband then partook of some cold meat, of which there was a plentiful provision - enough to have allowed the boy and the girl each a good slice of bread.
    And the bread which this man and this woman ate was new and good; but the morsels thrown to the children were stale and mouldy.
    "I tell you what," said the woman, whispering in a mysterious tone to her husband, "I have thought of an excellent plan to make Fanny useful."
    "Well, Polly, and what's that?" demanded the man.
    "Why," resumed his wife, her countenance wearing an expression of demoniac cruelty and cunning "I've been thinking that Harry will soon be of use to you in your line. He'll be so handy to shove through a window, or to sneak down a area and hide himself all day in a cellar to open the door at night, - or a thousand things."
    "In course he will," said Bill, with an approving nod.
    "Well, but then there's Fanny. What good can she do for us for years and years to come.  She won't beg - I know she won't. It's all that boy's lies when he says she does: he is very fond of her and only tells us that to screen her. Now I've a very great mind to do someot that will make her beg - aye, and be glad to beg - and beg too in spite of herself."
    "What the hell do you mean?"
    "Why, doing that to her which will put her entirely at our mercy, and at the same time render her an object of such interest that the people must give her money. I'd wager that with my plan she'd get her five bob a day; and what a blessin' that would be."
    "But how?" said Bill impatiently.
    "And then," continued the woman, without heeding this question, "she wouldn't want Henry with her; and you might begin to make him useful some how or another. All we should have to do would be to take Fanny every day to some good thoroughfare, put her down there of a mornin,' and go and fetch her agen at night; and I'll warrant she'd keep us in beer - aye, and in brandy too."
    "What the devil are you driving at?" demanded the man.
    "Can't you guess?"
    "No - blow me if I can."
    "Do you fancy the scheme?" 
    "Am I a fool? Why, of course I do: but how the deuce is all this to be done? You never could learn Fanny to be so fly as that?"
    "I don't want to learn her anything at all. What I propose is to force it on her."
    "And how is that?" asked the man.
    "By putting her eyes out," returned the woman.
    Her husband was a robber - yes, and a murderer: but he started when this proposal met his ear.
    "There's nothin' like a blind child to excite compassion," added the woman coolly. "I know it for a fact," she continued, after a pause, seeing that her husband did not answer her. "There's old Kate Betts, who got all her money by travelling about the country with two blind girls; and she made 'em blind herself too - she's often told me how she did it; and that has put the idea into my head."
    "And how did she do it?" asked the man, lighting his pipe, but not glancing towards his wife; for although her words had made a deep impression upon him, he was yet struggling with the remnant of a parental feeling, which remained in his heart in spite of himself.
    "She covered the eyes over with cockle shells, the eye-lids, recollect, being wide open; and in each shell there was a large black beetle. A bandage tied tight round the head, kept the shells in their place; and the shells kept the eyelids open. In a few days the eyes got quite blind, and the pupils had a dull white  appearance."
    "And you're serious, are you?" demanded the man.
    "Quite," returned the woman, boldly: "why not?"
    "Why not indeed?" echoed Bill, who approved of the horrible scheme, but shuddered at the cruelty of it, villain as he was.
    "Ah! why not?" pursued the female: "one must make one's children useful somehow or another. So, if you don't mind,- I'll send Harry out alone tomorrow morning and keep Fanny at home. The moment the boy's out of the way, I'll try my hand at Kate Betts's plan."
    The conversation was interrupted by a low knock at the attic-door.

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