Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 7 - Death in the Dust-Yard

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VII

DEATH IN THE DUST-YARD.

 A LONDON dust-yard is, I think, the ne plus ultra of ugliness. It stands most likely in the midst of a dingy, miry chaos of straddling railway arches and coal sidings. The whitewash on the pens of neighbouring cattle stations only, by its contrast, makes the circumjacent dirt more noticeable. Very likely, too, there is a gloomy gas works near at hand, and a muddy canal, burdened with grimy, gritty, splashed, mal-odorous barges, creeping past the yard. When rain falls on its "soil," how different is the odour exhaled from that sent up from garden-mould beneath a summer shower! There is a huddle of black mounds, big and little, whose bulk tilted carts are increasing with shot loads, that send out clouds of blinding, stifling dust.
    Besides the dust-heaps, sifted and unsifted, [-128-] there are piles of old metal, old shoes, brick- bats, oyster shells, rags, bones and cinders. Think of pigs and poultry routing and pecking in the golden straw around a farm-house, and then look at the melancholy swine, the dismal ducks, and penitential hens which grub, with Lenten ashes not only on their heads but all over them, within the dust-yard. When the cocks try to crow, they seem, like the Ancient Mariner and his companions, to have been "choked with soot."
    In such a dreary place of industry a row of dust-dredged, leather-aproned women were sifting as usual, with their little ones grubbing near them, very much like the pigs, only with perhaps a shade more cheerfulness, - since even in a dust-yard, thank heaven, a child can manage to be merry, - when one of the sifters suddenly exclaimed, 
    "It beats me, it do, however Jack come to take up wi' a weak young gal like she. She didn't ought to ha' come to the yard this mornin'. 'Old up, can't yer?"
    The woman addressed the last words to a young fellow-worker, about to become a mother, who had fallen face foremost into the dust she had been sifting.
    " 'Old up, can't yer? My ole man would ha' licked me - an' surve me jolly well right - if I'd been sich a chicken. You're a nice 'un for a smart chap like Jack to take up with!"
    [-129-] Bet might have a rough tongue, but she had, after a fashion, a kind heart, and accordingly, when "Madam Sal" had come a little to herself, she helped her home. Bill, the man who was "feeding" the sieves, and the other sifters resumed their work as if nothing had happened; but as the sultry day wore on and Bet did not return, their curiosity was excited. One of the youngsters was despatched to Jack's house, or rather room, to learn what was "up," and brought back this news,- 
    "Sal's dead; an' there's two kids, a b'y an' a gal, an' Bet's a-nussin' on 'em."
    The extemporized nurse was partly actuated by a genuine feeling of motherly and sisterly pity. She called to mind the babies she had lost, and was sorry for the wailing little twins up on' her lap. She felt sorry, too, for the young creature she had pulled off the dust-heap. The grime had been washed off "Madam Sal's" comely face - still comely, although wasted - but Bet no longer felt envious of its good looks.
    (The "Madam" had been added to Sal's name by her comrades, partly in envious satire, partly in reluctant compliment; she was not only far handsomer than they, but also morally superior. She did not get drunk. swear, or fight; she had insisted on having "marriage lines," and had always been true to her Jack; and she had some dim notion of a God and a hereafter.)
    [-130-] The corpse had been streeked as decently as circumstances would permit. With the moty afternoon sunlight pouring in upon the washed face, it lay at rest in the dusty, crowded little room - no yard but the grave-yard now for it to go to. Bet and her gossips, out of respect to the dead, talked as if they had all got very bad colds; but neither their hoarse whispers nor the unchecked laughter and wrangling going on as usual outside the chamber of death, were anything to the young mother who could not hear the cries of her two poor helpless little babes. She was at peace, having done her duty in her poor little sphere, to the best of her little light.
    Jack, in his heavy way, had been very fond of her, and she had made him a little better man than he would have been without her. She was a good neighbour, too; willing to the best of her little power to do a kindness to anyone; no wrangler, but a peace-maker.
    When Bet thought of these things she was sorry for poor Sal, and yet she was not very sorry that Sal was gone. 
    Bet's first "ole man" being dead, she wished for another. She was not over particular,- anyone would be better than none, but still she had her preferences. There are differences even in dustmen, alike as they may seem to the superficial observer, and Jack was the one whom Bet would have taken, as the racing prophets [-131-] say, "for choice." She did not make believe that she was disinterested in taking the care of his children upon herself. Such little attempts at self-deception are made by widowers' female friends of a higher social grade than Bet's.
    If Bet had attempted so to deceive herself, she would not have been allowed.
    "It's hearly days, Bet, to be wantin' to step into the poor gal's shoes," was the Parthian arrow of one crabbed old crone, as she took her departure.
    It was fortunate that she had not made the remark before she had. got to the door, or Bet, whose temper was none of the mildest, might have been suddenly cured of her bad cold. As it was, her hands twitched at the twins, as if, in default of a flat-iron, she would have liked to fling one of them at the old woman's head.
    When the news, as above reported, reached the dust-heap on which the dead woman had fallen, Bet's behaviour obtained no more charitable criticism from her fellow-labourers of her own sex. Bill, however, objected that a fine woman like Bet need not fling herself at Jack's head, be being "no sich mighty ketch."
    "You dusn't say so to his face, no, nor to Bet's nayther, Bill," one of the women retorted.
    "Well, I knows this," said Bill, beating a double retreat, "as there won't be no more siftin' done to-day. It's a-going to rain cats an' dogs, an' I'm off home."
    [-132-] He had barely time to tighten the outside garters of twine, with which his corduroy trousers were begirt, and to cowl himself with an old sack, before the black cloud overhead broke. Down came a torrent of rain, rattling on the barge tarpaulins, plumping like big bullets into the canal, raising from the dust-heaps that hideous stench to which I have referred, making everyone moistly miserable, - except the ducks, which partly recovered from their chronic depression and made feeble attempts to quack.
    As Bill splashed his way through inky puddles out of the yard, Jack's cart splashed into it: Jack, half-muddled with the beer on which he had spent his copper douceurs, and in a very bad temper.
    Amenities of intercourse are not cultivated in dust-yards. "Your Sal's kicked the bucket, Jack," shouted Bill.
    With a superfluity of parts of speech, - especially of verbs and adjectives - Jack accused Bill of saying the thing that was not, and seizing his shovel flung it at Bill's head.
    Jack, as I have said, was fond of his wife, and that was his way of showing it.
    Bill ducked: the shovel whizzed over his head, and buried itself up to the handle in a dust-heap.
    "Tworn't my fault, you fool," Bill growled back.
    [-133-] In his way Bill was sorry for his yard-mate, - "sympathized with him in his bereavement" would be the polite phrase, - and, therefore, in spite of the provocation he had received, Bill used mild language.
    When poor Jack got home, and learned that Bill had, figuratively, told the truth, he was for a short time mad with grief, and endured anguish very much like that of a bereaved bear. Civilized widowers use refined phrases, and smother their emotions in perfumed pocket-handkerchiefs. Jack's phrases were the reverse of refined, and he did not possess a pocket-handkerchief of any sort.
    "Rampagin' like a wild beast," as his neighbours phrased it, he bundled the hoarsely whispering gossips out of his room. Even Bet bad to flee before him, taking the twins with her.
    "Yes, he've comed in," said the crabbed old crone to his cart-mate, who came later on to inquire after him. "Can't yer 'ear 'im a-roarin' like a bull?"
    Jack's mate was sympathetic, but he was also practical. He went into Jack's room, and when he found him with his grimy face buried in his grimy hands, on the corpse's coverlet, shaking all over as he bellowed forth his sorrow, he patted him on the shoulder.
    "Coom, Jack," he said, in a tone of friendly superiority; "what's the good o' that? It [-134-] 'ont wake her, poor gal, an' you're only a messin' of the sheet. Grievin's dry work,- don't ye find it so? Coom along, man: I'll stand a pot willin,' - 'alf a gallon, I will."
    So Jack and his mate went out to the "Seven Bells," a house of call for dustmen and barge-men. Jack was easily persuaded to drink. He swallowed a good pint of porter at starting, as with one deep sigh; but at first he considered it due to the memory of his deceased wife to abstain from smoke. However, the bargees and the dusties, male and female, came dropping in. The room soon was full: the foaming pots went round, the fair sex (if such a phrase may be applied to dustwomen) taking care to have their full share of the heavy wet.
    Under its influence Jack's heavy heart began to lighten. He fingered a pipe, and then he surreptitiously charged it. After having plugged the shag with his little finger for an unusally long time, he began to toy with a spill, and at last stood boldly up and lighted it at the gas-burner.
    "That's right, mate," cried his friend. "You'll do now, Jack! Beer's good (puff) an' baccy's good (puff) but there's nuffink like both on 'em (puff, puff, puff) together (puff), old chap (puff), ven a cove's (puff) in the doldrums (puff, puff, puff).
   
As the smoke went up in widening rings, [-135-] Jack began to feel that, after all, his wife's death had not robbed life of all its joys.
    More beer was drunk and songs were sung, of the kind in. which both words and air are ad libitum, the only thing imperative being a thundering chorus. The force of habit ever and anon made Jack's lips frame themselves for the ri-tol-de-rol-de-lido, hut after having so recently roared like a bull over poor Sal's corpse, he could not quite bring himself to join in these jovial roarings. Ere long, however, he waved irregular time with his pipe and hammered applause with his pewter.
    Seeing him in this half-comforted state of mind, Bill, beery himself, unfortunately came up to make friends.
    "I don't bear no malice, Jack," he said, holding out his hand, which Jack took - and began to cry. "It's a ill wind," Bill went on, with sententious gravity, "that don't blow nobbudy no good: that's vhat I ollus says. Vhat I mean, an' vich I means to say, Jack, as nobbudy can deny. Shake 'ands agin, old feller: yer needn't look so black. Who's afraid? I don't bear no malice. Glad to see yer. Your gal wouldn't ha' let ye come: now yer can. Yer ain't tied to yer old 'ooman's apron-strings, are ye, Jack? She's gone, pore gal! We must all on us die some time or t'other: so vhat's the odds vhen yer dies, says I, - that's vhat I says, Jack. She's gone, [-136-] pore gal: she was a nice gal, a wery nice gal!"
    Bill's maunderings were suddenly cut short. Jack sprang up in a fury, and felled him with his quart pot like an ox.
    Instantly the room was in a tumult. Everybody was talking at once, and hitting out at somebody, - it didn't much matter whom. The women joined in the fray - amongst them Bet, who had, left the twins in the charge of some other nurse. Seeing Jack beset, she rushed to the rescue, and received two black eyes from a bargeman, which she repaid in kind.
    To put an end to the free fight the publican turned off the gas; but when the combatants had tumbled out into the road, hostilities were renewed. The police, taught wisdom by experience, allowed the fire to burn itself out. It was still sputtering in the small hours, but at last expired.
    Everybody got to bed somehow, and next morning nobody bore any malice, Bill not excepted.
    Nobody, indeed, could definitely remember how it came to pass that there were so many black eyes to be seen, so far as grime would permit, at the dust-yard next day.
   
That was the mourning which was put on for poor Sal.

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