UP WEST - CHAPTER XIII
TALENT IN TATTERS
The sandwich man---Changes of costume---His remuneration---Keen competition---A true story---Sudden disappearance---reappearance as a successful author---Terrible news at the zenith of success---I visit my dying friend---His history---Writes for the stage--- "Returned with thanks"---Goes on the stage---Not unsuccessful---Marries out of employment---Has typhoid fever---From bad to worse--- Desperate poverty---The doctor orders fresh air and wine !---he becomes a sandwich man---His wife dies---The end.
I KNOW of no more wearisome occupation than that of the sandwich man. In fair weather and foul, in sunshine and snow, in clouds of dust and storms of rain, he has to jog along throughout the dreary day, attracting public notice to the strong woman at the Aquarium, the performing elephants at the Crystal Palace, or the latest Ceylon blend at the sign of the Golden Cannister.
From time to time the boardsman has to don some descriptive costume. Should he be retained on behalf of the Army and Navy Hair-Cutting Saloon, he may appear in an old regimental tunic and cocked hat, accompanied by a mate who stalks the world in the guise of a British Admiral. Again, should his boards illustrate "The Convict's Doom," the latest melodramatic success at the Princess's Theatre, he will very likely walk abroad in knickerbockers and a jacket plentifully embellished with the broad arrow.
The remuneration of sandwich men varies from one shilling to one and eightpence per day. To earn this paltry amount the poor fellows have to tramp through the streets-from ten in the morning to ten at night. Once during the day a halt is called for a meal, or, if that is not forthcoming, for a pipe.
[-221-] In spite of the badness of the pay, the long hours, and the degradation involved, there is keen competition for the sandwich boards. The regular hands, who are known to the advertising contractors, are tolerably sure of obtaining employment, but the case is very different with the occasional men. Of such there are often fifty to every board that has to be carried. I know of no more striking illustration of the struggle for existence than is afforded by the exterior of the contractors' offices when men are being engaged. It is painful to see the eager and anxious faces of the applicants during the distribution of boards, and still more painful afterwards to see the unsuccessful ones filing dejectedly away, some to seek work elsewhere, and others to betake themselves to the parks, the day nurseries of poor wretches who have not had the means, on the previous evening, to procure a night's lodging in a "doss-house."
The sandwich men are drawn from nearly every class and calling. Almost any one can carry boards; hence the desperate fight for the work.
Few men sink any lower than this employment, for the simple reason that they do not long survive it. For the most part they end their days in the workhouse infirmary or the hospital, whither they are taken when stricken by ague or other disease induced by exposure to the cold and wet.
I am only acquainted with one case of a man who, after being reduced to this employment has been able to regain a position in life; and the facts of this case I propose to lay before the reader. Though I shall do my best to conceal the identity of the person concerned, it will be my endeavour to reproduce his story in the language in which he himself told it to me.
It was a few days after Christmas in the year 188-, the locus in quo one of the small houses in Curzon Street, Mayfair, a thoroughfare then known as Bolton Row. The houses there were, for the most part, bachelor residences, and the occupier of one of them was my old friend and school-fellow George M---. We had lost sight of one another for many years; in point of fact, shortly after leaving Eton, my friend had mysteriously disappeared. He had not been seen or heard of until a few years before the date of which I am speaking, when he suddenly burst upon the world as one of the most brilliant and successful authors of the day. His name was in everybody's mouth, that is, it was after being announced, [-222-] for his first work was produced anonymously. It was on a most interesting social subject, and, getting into the hands of one of the shrewdest publishers in London, it had a great vogue, so much so, indeed, that everybody went about asking "Who wrote the Papers?" The author's name was soon known, and his reputation was secure. Book succeeded book, each one meeting with, if possible, a greater success than its predecessor. The new writer turned his attention to the stage, and produced one or two plays that yielded a considerable fortune for himself and for the manager of the fashionable West End theatre where they were brought out.
M--- was in the zenith of his success when he received the terrible news from his medical man that he was suffering from an incurable malady, of which the seeds had been latent in his system for some time, and that his end was rapidly approaching. It was about a fortnight after this great blow had fallen upon him that I was seated by his bedside in the little house in Bolton Row. The only other occupant of the room was the hospital nurse who was in attendance upon him. He had been quietly dozing for about half an hour, and I had been watching his pale, worn features, my mind wandering back to the old Eton days when "Sunny," as he was called, was the brightest and merriest boy in the whole school. I remembered what a terrible change I had noticed, when we had met again a few years before, in my friend's manner, spirits, and general bearing.
I was aroused from my reverie by feeling a pressure on my arm, and, on looking down I saw that the invalid was awake, and watching me narrowly.
"Turn the lamp down a little lower, please, nurse," said he; "the light somehow seems to hurt my eyes. Thanks.
And now will you leave us alone for an hour or so, as I want to have a private talk with my old friend."
As soon as the door was closed, he continued, addressing me:
"I know what you were thinking of just now --- of old times, and school, and how changed I am from the merry little companion you used to know. You do not suppose I have not read your thoughts before. You have a tell-tale face, you know---you always had---and I noticed at our first meeting, after I became somewhat of a celebrity, how critically, you observed my prematurely grey hair, furrowed cheeks, and joyless manner; and, with all the admiration you have expressed [-223-] for my works, how often have you said, in your old, easy way,. 'Sunny, old man, how I do wish you had not turned quite so cynical!' You have never asked me the reason why---that is like you; you thought you might give me pain. But I am going to tell you the reason to-night, for I know that nobody could feel more sorry for an old friend than you."
He paused, passed his hand over his forehead, and then continued:
"You remember just after I left school hearing of my poor father's ruin, although, I have no doubt, you were unaware of the details, and of how terrible a crash it was. From wealth he was reduced to absolute poverty. He had not long to bear it, though, for his health, which had never been very good,. quickly broke up; and I, who had been brought up in the lap. of luxury, and had never known what it was to have a wish ungratified, was left without a relative in the world, and, what was worse, without a sixpence in my pocket. What was to be done? I was young, and not without energy, and so I determined to try my luck at literature. I wrote two or three little things, which I hawked about from place to place, but nobody would deign to cast an eye upon them.
"I had always been very fond of acting, as you will remember, and I next turned my attention to writing for the stage. I had managed to make the acquaintance of a very poor and humble friend, who was connected with an evening. paper, and who was very nearly in as straitened circumstances as myself. Through his assistance I obtained sufficient journalistic work to keep me from actual starvation while I was. completing my literary attempt. At length it was finished, and I hurried, manuscript in hand, to my friend, who, when I read it to him, although not usually a demonstrative man, was loud in its praises and sanguine of its success. Through him I obtained an introduction to one or two theatrical managers, to whom I submitted my manuscript for approval, but always with the same result---"returned with thanks," and from its outward appearance I should say they had not even looked at it. This was the second play I produced in London after the success of my books. You were there on the first night, and you will remember the enthusiastic reception it met with. And yet this was the very work that had been treated with scorn many years before, by nearly every theatre in London!"
He was sitting up in bed and getting very excited. I begged him to be calm.
[-224-] "Calm!" he exclaimed, "wait until you have heard the rest. I saw at once that, as an unknown man, there was no chance for me in this particular groove. 'Well,' said I to myself; 'if I cannot succeed in having my own work interpreted, suppose I try interpreting the works of others,' and I determined to go upon the stage. There were no travelling provincial companies in those days, and I think only one regular theatrical agent, Mr. Anson. Through him I succeeded in obtaining an engagement in a company in the north of England, the manager of which was proprietor of two theatres in the district. I was not unsuccessful, and perhaps this was the reason why I committed the most selfish act of my life, an act which has since seemed to me to have amounted almost to a crime. I dared to love. I, a penniless wretch without a six-pence to call my own, ventured to say: 'With all my worldly goods I thee endow.' But I did love with all my heart and with all my soul.
"The object of my affections was a clergyman's daughter. He was the lather of a large family, and Mildred---that was her name---was one of the youngest children. Anxious to relieve the burden of the household expenses, she had taken an engagement as a governess in the household of a wealthy tradesman in the place where I was acting. We met, loved, became secretly engaged, and were ultimately married in a sequestered corner of the town. My wife, on writing to her relatives, who looked upon the stage as a hotbed and sink of iniquity, received the answer she expected. They told her never to venture across her father's threshold again, and added that from henceforth her name would never be mentioned in the family circle. My wife soon recovered from the shock of the news. What cared we? Were we not flesh of one flesh, bone of one bone, loving as two creatures had never loved before?
"I don't think I ever pictured such great happiness as fell to my lot in that and a few succeeding years. For a considerable time we three---for my wife had given birth to a little boy---struggled on, doing our best on the small salary I was earning. Suddenly our manager died, the company was disbanded, and I was thrown out of employment. With the little money I had saved we came to London, and took a small lodging near Covent Garden, it being my intention to seek another provincial engagement. While endeavouring to do so, however, I was seized with typhoid fever, my poor little boy contracted the disease, and when I awoke from my delirium, which [-225-] lasted several days, I learnt from my heart-broken wife that he was dead. She tried to comfort me, and nursed me like a ministering angel. I knew not how we had existed during the time I had been ill, but was not long in making the discovery. When I was well enough to cast my eyes round the room, I found that it had been stripped of the few little articles of comfort we had managed to gather about us. My wife, too, had scarcely a garment to her back. With what patience and with what fortitude she had borne up! Poor darling Mildred, to what misery my selfish love had brought her!
"Things went from bad to worse. I had no strength left, and was barely able to walk, when one morning the landlady made her appearance, and stated that she depended on the rent of the apartments for her own livelihood, and that, much as she regretted it and pitied us, we must leave on the following day, as she had re-let the rooms. I could not complain, for I knew that what she said was true ; and so next morning we were outcasts, waifs on the pitiless streets of London."
"But surely you had some friends!" I interrupted. "Had you appealed to me, poor as I was then myself, something could have been done."
"Friends!", he replied bitterly. "I tell you I was lost--- lost in this great world of ours---lost like thousands of others are lost, either through their own faults, or, as in my case, through misfortune. Their identity destroyed, their names forgotten, their features distorted and unrecognisable through want and disease, their very existence blotted out---who stops to notice them in their rags and tatters?
"I will not weary you with any detailed account of our sufferings. Suffice it to say that we found ourselves in a low lodging-house in Spitalfields, which was the only shelter we could pay for. Fancy for a moment my sweet, gently-nurtured darling amid such surroundings I The air was polluted with foul oaths and language too horrible to describe, and the place was packed with thieves and women of the lowest and most degraded class. We were there for two nights, and then, ill as I was, I managed to obtain some temporary employment in Spitalfields Market, which enabled me to take a small room in Bethnal Green. All this time I saw that my darling's health was giving way. My lion-hearted girl, who had suffered so much for me, patiently and without a murmur, was gradually breaking down. Day by day a terrible change came over her. The parish [-226-] doctor, who was very kind, and who sees thousands of such cases every year, in answer to my anxious enquiries, shook his head. She required fresh air, he said, and wine and nourishment. Fresh air in that foul court! Wine and nourishment, when we couldn't afford any fire, though the pitiless snow was oozing through the roof! My God! I nearly went mad. The doctor, moved by the desperate state I was in, bade me follow him to his dispensary, and there gave me a small quantity of port wine. The next day was the last of my employment at the market, and with the money I received I obtained some nourishing food. I sat watching all night by the mattress on which my darling lay, every now and then moistening her parched lips. When day broke I slipped my hand from hers, and having visited a neighbour, who promised to look in once or twice during my absence---for the poor never fail to help the poor---I crept downstairs into the street.
"I enquired in vain for work until nearly nine o'clock, when I thought of the yard where I had heard that sandwich men were engaged. It seemed but a slender chance, but I resolved to try my luck. I was reduced to the utmost state of weakness by semi-starvation and distress, but I knew it was-necessary to put on a bold front if I were to succeed; so, pulling myself together as well as I could, I took my stand in the crowd of applicants and tremblingly awaited the result. It so happened that an extra number of men were required that day, and I was engaged. For the twelve hours I was to receive the sum of one shilling.
"When I got between those boards, what with shame, disgrace, and hunger, I thought I should have dropped. I passed through the streets, but saw nothing distinctly. The faces and forms of passers-by were all lost in one blurred mass. I hung my head on my chest, and moved forward mechanically-in the wake of my comrades.
"How I prayed for night throughout that long, weary day t It came at last, and I received my shilling and hurried home. As our task finished at Regent Circus, I did not get back to. Bethnal Green until nearly eleven o'clock, when I rushed upstairs to find that my poor wife was dying. The doctor had called, my neighbour told me, and gave no hope. A faint voice came from the bed
"'George, dear, thank Heaven you've come; I thought you would have been too late. What will become of you, darling, without me?"
[-227-] "I seized her in my arms, and kissed her brow, damp with the chill of death.
"'My love, my angel!' I cried, 'it is I---I---who have brought you to this. It has been all my selfish folly.'
"By way of answer she pressed me more closely to her heart.
"'Give me a little air,' she gasped.
"I ran to the window and opened it, and as I did so the sound of a Christmas carol from a neighbouring street fell upon my ears. What hollow mockery it was! I cursed the waits, I cursed myself; and staggered back to the bed.
"'Mildred---wife!' I sobbed, and the next minute she lay lifeless before me.
"I fell senseless over her prostrate form, and when I recovered my reason I was an altered man.
"They say there is no such thing as a broken heart. Be it so, but hearts can die though this wretched frame may still live on. It was so with me, for from that moment my heart was dead."
"She knew your worth, George, as I do now, and always did!" I exclaimed, the tears pouring down my cheeks. "She loved you, and died in the arms of the man she had devoted her whole young life to. Had she lived, think how proud she would have been of you."
"Think!" he murmured. "Yes, think that if one-fiftieth part of a night's share of one of my plays had been mine that day, her life might---nay, would---have been saved. Oh, Heaven! what had I done? What had I done?"
I noticed now for the first time that a change had come over my suffering fiend. I hastily summoned the nurse to the room, and she raised him gently in her arms. He clutched me convulsively by the hand, and a smile stole over his hollowed cheeks.
Mildred," he murmured, "Mildred, the waits ---"
Then he sank back upon the pillow, my hand fell from his grasp, and I knew that the gentle spirit of my long-suffering school-fellow had passed peacefully away.
[----nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.----]
source: Montague Williams, Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894