Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    The facts of the following brief narrative, which are very few and of but melancholy interest, became known to me in the precise order in which they are laid before the reader. They were forced upon my observation rather than sought out by me; and they present, to my mind at least, a touching picture of the bitter conflict industrious poverty is sometimes called upon to wage with "the thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to."
    It must be now eight or nine years since, in traversing a certain street, which runs for nearly half a mile in a direct line southward, I first encountered Ellen ---. She was then a fair young girl of seventeen, rather above the middle size, and with a queen-like air and gait which made her appear taller than she really was. Her countenance, pale but healthy, and of a perfectly regular and classic mould, was charming to look upon from its undefinable expression of lovableness and sweet temper. Her tiny feet tripped noiselessly along the pavement, and a glance from her black eye sometimes met mine like a ray of light, as, punctually at twenty minutes to nine, we passed each other near --- House, each of us on our way to the theatre of our daily operations. She was an embroideress, as I soon discovered from a small stretching-frame, containing some unfinished work, which she occasionally carried in her hand. She set me a worthy example of punctuality, and I could any day have told the time to a minute without looking at my watch, by marking the spot where we passed each other. I learned to look for her regularly, and before I knew her name, had given her that of "Minerva," in acknowledgment of her efficiency as a Mentor.
    A year after the commencement of our acquaintance, which never ripened into speech, happening to set out from home one morning a quarter of an hour before my usual time, I made the pleasing discovery that my juvenile Minerva had a younger sister, if possible still more beautiful than herself. The pair were taking an affectionate leave of each other at the crossing of the New Road, and the silver accents of the younger as, kissing her sister, she laughed out, "Good-by, Ellen," gave me the first information of the real name of my pretty Mentor. The little Mary - for so was the younger called, who could not be more than eleven years of age - was a slender, frolicsome sylph, with a skin of the purest carnation, and a face like that of Sir Joshua's seraph in the National Gallery, but with larger orbs and longer lashes shading them. As she danced and leaped before me on her way home again, I could not but admire the natural case and grace of every motion, nor fail to comprehend and sympathise with the anxious looks of the sisters' only parent, their widowed mother, who stood watching the return of the younger darling at the door of a very humble two-story dwelling, in the vicinity of the New River Head.
    Nearly two years passed away, during which, with the exception of Sundays and holidays, every recurring morning brought me the grateful though momentary vision of one or both of the charming sisters. Then came an additional pleasure - I met them both together every day. The younger had commenced practising the same delicate and ingenious craft of embroidery, and the two pursued their industry in company under the same employer. It was amusing to mark the demure assumption of womanhood darkening the brows of the aerial little sprite, as, with all the new-born consequence of  responsibility, she walked soberly by her sister's side, frame in hand, and occasionally revealed to passers-by a brief glimpse of her many-coloured handiwork. They were the very picture of beauty and happiness, and happy beyond question must their innocent lives have been for many pleasant months. But soon the shadows of care began to steal over their hitherto joyous faces, and traces of anxiety, perhaps of tears, to be too plainly visible on their paling cheeks. All at once I missed them in my morning's walk, and for several days - it might be weeks - saw nothing of them. I was at length startled from my forgetfulness of their very existence by the sudden apparition of both one Monday morning clad in the deepest mourning. I saw the truth at once; the mother, who, I had remarked, was prematurely old and feeble, was gone, and the two orphan children were left to battle it with the world. My conjecture was the truth, as a neighbour of whom I made some inquiries on the subject was not slow to inform me. "Ah, sir, said the good woman, "poor Mrs. D--- have had a hard time of it, and she born an' bred a gentleooman."
    I asked her if the daughters were provided for.
    "Indeed, sir," continued my informant, "I'm afeard not. Twas the most unfortnatest thing in the world, sir, poor Mr. D---s dying jest as a' did. You see, sir, he war a soldier, a fightin' out in Indy, and his poor wife lef at home wi' them two blossoms o' gals. He warn't what you call a common soldier, sir, but some kind o' officer like; an' in some great battle fought seven year agone he done fine service I've heerd, and promotion was sent out to un, but didn't get there till the poor man was dead of his wounds. The news of he's death cut up his poor wife complete, and she han't been herself since. I've know'd she wasn't long for here ever since it come. Wust of all, it seems that because the poor man was dead the very day the promotion reached un, a' didn't die a captain after all, and so the poor widder didn't get no pension. how they've a' managed to live is more than I can tell. The oldest gal is very clever, they say; but Lor' bless 'ee! taint much to s'port three as is to be got out o' broiderin'."
    Thus enlightened on the subject of their private history, it was with very different feelings I afterwards regarded these unfortunate children. Bereft of both parents, and cast upon a world with the ways of which they were utterly unacquainted, and in which they might be doomed to the most painful struggles, even to procure a bare subsistence, one treasure was yet left them-it was the treasure of each other's love. So far as the depth of this feeling could be estimated from the looks and actions of both, it was all in all to each. But the sacred bond that bound them was destined to be rudely rent asunder. The cold winds of autumn began to visit too roughly the fair pale face of the younger girl, and the unmistakeable indications of consumption made their appearance: the harrassing cough, the hectic check, the deep-settled pain in the side, the failing breath. Against these dread forerunners it was vain long to contend; and the poor child had to remain at home in her solitary sick-chamber, while the loving sister toiled harder than ever to provide, if possible, the means of comfort and restoration to health. All the world knows the ending of such a hopeless strife as this. It is sometimes the will of heaven that the path of virtue, like that of glory, leads but to the grave. So it was in the present instance : the blossom of this fair young life withered away, and the grass-fringed lips of the child's early tomb closed over the lifeless relics ere spring had dawned upon the year.
    Sorrow had graven legible traces upon the brow of my hapless Mentor when I saw her again. How different now was the vision that greeted my daily sight from that of former years! The want that admits not of idle wailing compelled her still to pursue her daily course of labour, and she pursued it with the same constancy and punctuality as she had ever done. But the exquisitely chiselled face, the majestic gait, the elastic step -the beauty and glory of youth, unshaken because unassaulted by death and sorrow - where were they? Alas! all the bewitching charms of her former being had gone down into the grave of her mother and sister; and she, their support and idol, seemed no more now than she really was - a wayworn, solitary, and isolated struggler for daily bread.
    Were this a fiction that I am writing, it would be an easy matter to deal out a measure of poetical justice, and to recompense poor Ellen for all her industry, self-denial, and suffering in the arms of a husband, who should possess as many and great virtues as herself, and an ample fortune to boot. I wish with all my heart that it were a fiction, and that Providence had never furnished me with such a seeming anomaly to add to the list of my desultory chronicles. But I am telling a true story of a life. Ellen found no mate. No mate, did I say? Yes,, one: the same grim yoke-fellow whose delight it is to "gather roses in the spring," paid ghastly court to her faded charms, and won her - who shall say an unwilling bride? I could see his gradual but deadly advances in my daily walks: the same indications that gave warning of the sister's fate admonished me that she also was on her way to the tomb, and that the place that had known her would soon know her no more. She grew day by day more feeble; and one morning I found her seated on the step of a door, unable to proceed. After that she disappeared from my view; and though I never saw her again at the old spot, I have seldom passed that spot since, though for many years following the same route, without recognising again in my mind's eye the graceful form and angel aspect of Ellen D---
    "And is this the end of your mournful history?" some querulous reader demands. Not quite. There is a soul of good in things evil. Compassion dwells with the depths of misery; and in the valley of the shadow of death dove-eyed Charity walks with shining wings. It was nearly two months' after I had lost sight of poor Ellen, that during one of my dinner-hour perambulations about town, I looked in almost accidentally upon my old friend and chum, Jack W---. Jack keeps a perfumer's shop not a hundred miles from Gray's Inn, where, ensconced up to his eyes in delicate odours, he passes his leisure hours-the hours when commerce flags, and people have more pressing affairs to attend to than the delectation of their nostrils - in the enthusiastic study of art and vertu. His shop is hardly more crammed with bottles and attar, soaps, scents, and all the etceteras of the toilet, than the rest of his house with prints, pictures, carvings, and curiosities of every sort. Jack and I went to school together, and sowed our slender crop of wild oats together; and, indeed, in some sort have been together ever since. We both have our own collections of rarities, such as they are, and each criticises the other's new purchases. On the present occasion ,there was a new Van Somebody's old painting awaiting my judgment; and no sooner did my shadow darken his door, than starting from his lair, and bidding the boy ring the bell should he be wanted, he bustled me upstairs, calling by the way to his housekeeper, Mrs. Jones-Jack is a bachelor-to bring up coffee for two. I was prepared to pronounce my dictum on his newly-acquired treasure, and was going to bounce unceremoniously into the old' lumber-room over the lobby to regale my sight with the delightful confusion of his unarranged accumulations when he pulled me forcibly back by the coattail. "Not there," said Jack; "you can't go there. Go into my snuggery."
    "And why not there?" said I; jealous of some new purchase which I was not to see.
    "Because there's somebody ill there- it is a bedroom now: a poor girl; she wanted a place to die in, poor thing; and I put her in there. 
    "Who is she ?-a relative ?"
    "No; I never saw her till Monday last. Sit down, I'll tell you how it was. Set down the coffee, Mrs. Jones, and just look in upon the patient, will you? Sugar and cream? You know my weakness for the dead wall in Lincoln's Inn Fields. (Jack never refuses a beggar backed by that wall, for the love of Ben Jonson, who, he devoutly believes, had a hand in building it.) "Well, I met with her there on Monday last. She asked for nothing, but held out her hand, and as she did so the tears streamed from her eyes on the pavement. The poor creature, it was plain enough, was then dying; and I told her so. She said she knew it, but had no place to die in but the parish workhouse, and hoped that I would not send her there. What's the use of talking? I brought her here, and put her to sleep on the sofa, while Jones cleared out the lumber-room and got up a bed. I sent for Dr. H--- to look at her; lie gave her a week or ten days at the farthest: I don't think she'll last so long. The curate of St. --- comes every day to see her, and I like to talk to her myself sometimes. Well, Mrs. Jones, how goes she on?"
    "She's asleep," said the housekeeper. "Would you like to look at her, gentlemen?"
    We entered the room together, It was as some unaccountable presentiment had forewarned me: there, upon a snow-white sheet, and pillowed by my friend's favourite eider-down squab, lay the wasted form of Ellen D---. She. slept soundly and breathed loudly; and IDr. H-, who entered while we stood at the bedside, informed us that in all probability she would awake only to die, or if to sleep again then to wake no more. The latter was the true prophecy. She awoke an hour or two after my departure, and passed away that same night in a quiet slumber without a pang.
    I never learned by what chain of circumstances she was driven to seek alms in the public streets. I might have done so perhaps by inquiry, but to what purpose? She died in peace, with friendly hands and friendly hearts near her, and Jack buried her in his own grave in Highgate Cemetery, at his own expense; and declares he is none the worse for it. I am of his opinion.

Charles Manby Smith Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, 1853