The Plain Facts and Figures of Prostitution,
Statistics of Westminster, Brompton, and Pimlico—Methods of conducting the nefarious Business—Aristocratic Dens—The High Tariff—The Horrors of he Social Evil The Broken Bridge behind the Sinner—”Dress Lodgers” —There’s always a “Watcher”—Soldiers and Sailors—The “Wrens of the Curragh.”
us in the first place consider the extent to which the terrible malady in
question afflicts us. I am not aware if more recent returns have been made than
those I have at hand. Were it possible to obtain exact statistics of this as of
almost every other branch of social economy, I should have been at the trouble
of inquiring for them further than I have; but I find that the calculations made
differ so widely one from the other, and are, as a whole, so irreconcilable with
probability, that it will be better to take an authentic return, albeit ten
years old, and make allowance for time since. The Metropolitan-Police
authorities are responsible for the accompanying figures.
It appears that at the date above indicated there were within the Metropolitan-Police district the enormous number of 8600 prostitutes, and they were distributed as follows:
Brothels / Prostitutes
Without entering into repulsive detail, I will endeavour to give the
reader some idea of the different methods under which the nefarious business is
conducted. The “houses of ill-fame” differ as widely in the extent and
quality of their dealings as the houses of honesty and fair commerce. There are
houses of “ill-fame” in the most fashionable quarters of the town, just as
there are in Wapping —houses that are let and sub-let until they reach a
rental as high as three and four hundred pounds a-year. It is not in those
aristocratic dens of infamy, however, that women suffer most; none but the
most costly wares are on sale at such establishments, and it is to the interest
of the hucksters who traffic in them to deal with them delicately as
circumstances will permit, to humour and coax and caress them as pet animals are
coaxed and humoured. Nor would the creatures themselves tolerate anything in the
shape of brutal treatment at the hands of those who harbour them. They “know
their value,” and as a rule are exacting, imperious, and insolent towards
their “landlords.” Unlike their sister unfortunates lower sunk in iniquity,
they would experience no difficulty in procuring new “lodgings.” The doors
of a hundred establishments such as that she now honours with residence are open
to her. With a handsome face and a full purse, the whole of the devilish crew of
brothel-keepers are her slaves, her fawning, cringing slaves, ready to lick the
dust from her shoes, so that she pays regularly her rent of ten guineas a-week,
and fails not to induce her “friends” to drink champagne at a guinea a
Possibly the gay lady may come to the “bitter end” some day, but at present, except from the moral point of view, she is not an object for commiseration. She at least has all that she deliberately bargains for—fine clothes, rich food, plenty of money, a carriage to ride in, the slave-like obedience of her “inferiors,” and the fulsome adulation of those who deal with her for her worth. Very often (though under the circumstances it is doubtful if from any aspect this is an advantage) she finds a fool with money who is willing to marry her; but whether she is content to accept the decent change, and to abide by it, of course depends on her nature. Whether her husband adheres to his rash bargain is a question that time only can solve. He at least, if he be a vicious man as well as a fool, may argue that she will be little the worse than when he found her if he leaves her; while possibly she may gather consolation from the same method of argument.
Anyway, she has a long way to descend before she may be branded as “common.” At present she is not even included in the police-returns. Any blue-coated guardian of the peace, in humble hope of earning a sixpence, would be only too eager to touch his hat to her and open her carriage-door to-morrow, and that even at the door of her genteel residence, which is in a neighbourhood much too respectable to permit it to be stigmatised as a “brothel.”
The police-report just quoted specifies that the 8600 prostitutes infesting the metropolis include 921 well-dressed and living in houses of ill-fame. This on the face of it, however, is significant of how very little the police really know of the matter they venture to report on. The women here alluded to are of the unobtrusive and orderly sort, the mainstay of whose occupation is to pass as respectable persons. They would be the last to resort for permanent lodging at houses whose fame was so ill that the greenest police-man on beat could point them out. It is altogether too hard to fasten the imputation of infamous on the holders of the houses in which this class of unfortunate seeks lodging. In very many cases the women are actuated by a twofold reason in gaining admission to the house of a householder who does not suspect her real character. In the first place, and as already stated, she wishes to pass in the immediate neighbourhood as respectable; and in the next place she not unnaturally seeks to evade payment of the monstrously high rate of rent that the common brothel-keeper would impose on her. Moreover, the peculiar branch of the terrible business she essays prospers under such management, where it would not if it were otherwise conducted. As a body, the women in question must be regarded as human creatures who have not gone altogether to the bad; and though in grim truth it may be in the highest degree absurd for anyone to cast herself deliberately into a sea of abomination, and then to affect a mincing manner of seriousness, much allowance should be made for the possibility that the fatal leap was not taken with cool forethought, or that the urging to it was due to some devilish genius whom there was no resisting. Anyhow, it would be hard on them, poor wretches, to compel them to give up their endeavours to conceal their degradation if, apart from mercenary motives, they are heartily desirous of concealing it.
“A vast proportion of those who, after passing through the career of kept mistresses, ultimately come upon the town, fall in the first instance from a mere exaggeration and perversion of one of the best qualities of a woman’s heart. They yield to desires in which they do not share, from a weak generosity which cannot refuse anything to the passionate entreaties of the man they love. There is in the warm fond heart of woman a strange and sublime unselfishness, which men too commonly discover only to profit by,—a positive love of self-sacrifice, an active, so to speak, an aggressive desire to show their affection by giving up to those who have won it something they hold very dear. It is an unreasoning and dangerous yearning of the spirit, precisely analogous to that which prompts the surrenders and self-tortures of the religious devotee. Both seek to prove their devotion to the idol they have enshrined, by casting down before his altar their richest and most cherished treasures. This is no romantic or over-coloured picture; those who deem it so have not known the better portion of the sex, or do not deserve to have known them.”
It would soften the hearts of many, and hold the hands of those who would break down the bridge behind the sinner, could they know the awful misery that frequently attends the life of a fallen woman. The 921 questionably quoted as “well dressed, and living in houses of ill-fame,” do not at all represent the horrors of the social evil in all its ghastly integrity. Such women are at least free to a certain extent to act as they please. No restriction is set on their movements; they may remain at home or go abroad, dress as they please, and expend their miserable gains according to their fancy. But they have sisters in misfortune to whom the smallest of these privileges is denied. They are to be found amongst the unhappy 2216 who are described as “well dressed, and walking the streets.” Unlike the gay lady, who makes her downy nest in the top-most branches of the deadly upas-tree, and is altogether above suspicion or vulgar reproach, this poor wretch is without a single possession in the wide world. She is but one of a thousand walking the streets of London, the most cruelly used and oppressed of all the great family to which they own relationship. They are bound hand and foot to the harpies who are their keepers. They are infinitely worse off than the female slaves on a nigger-plantation, for they at least may claim as their own the rags they wear, as well as a share of the miserable hut common to the gang after working-hours. But these slaves of the London pavement may boast of neither soul nor body, nor the gaudy skirts and laces and ribbons with which they are festooned. They belong utterly and entirely to the devil in human shape who owns the den that the wretched harlot learns to call her “home.” You would never dream of the deplorable depth of her destitution, if you met her in her gay attire. Splendid from her tasselled boots to the full-blown and flowery hat or bonnet that crowns her guilty head, she is absolutely poorer than the meanest beggar that ever whined for a crust.
These women are known as “dress lodgers.” They are poor wretches who somehow or another are reduced to the lowest depths of destitution. Sometimes illness is the cause. Sometimes, if a girl gets into a bad house, and is as yet too new to the horrible business to conform without remonstrance to the scandalous extortions practised by the brothel-keeper, she is “broken down and brought to it” by design and scheming. A girl not long since confided to a clergyman friend of mine the following shocking story. Rendered desperate by the threats of the wretch who owned her, she applied to him for advice. “I was bad enough before, I don’t deny it; but I wasn’t a thief. I hadn’t been used to their ways for more than a month, and had a good box of clothes and a silver watch and gold chain, when I went to lodge there, and it was all very well while I spent my money like a fool, bought gin, and treated ‘em all round; but when I wouldn’t stand it any longer, and told her (the brothel-keeper) plain that I would pay her the rent and no more (nine shillings a-week for a small back room), she swore that she’d break me down, and ‘bring me to her weight.’ I didn’t know that at the time; I didn’t hear of it till afterwards. She was fair enough to my face, and begged me not to leave her, flattering me, and telling me she would be ruined when her customers found out that the prettiest woman had left her. That’s how she quieted me, till one day, when I came home, she accused me of robbing a gentleman the night before of a diamond shirtpin, and there was a fellow there who said he was a ‘detective,’ and though my box was locked he had opened it before I came home, and swore that he had found the pin, which he showed me. It was all a lie. I had been with a gentleman the night before, but he wore a scarf with a ring to it; that I could swear to. But it was no use saying anything; I was the thief, they said, and I was to be taken into custody. What was I to do? I begged of the detective not to take me; I implored Mother H— to intercede for me, and she pretended to. She went into another room with the detective, and then she came back and told me that the man would take ten pounds down to hush it up. I’ve seen that man since; he is a ‘bully’ at a bad house in the Waterloo-road, but I truly believed that he was a private-clothes policeman, as he said he was. Of course I didn’t have ten pounds, nor ten shillings hardly; but Mother H— said that she would lend the money ‘on security;’ and I made over to her—sold to her, in fact—in writing, every scrap of clothes that I had in my box and on my back. ‘Let’s have them too, Meg,’ Mother H— said, ‘and then you’re safe not to run away.’ I made over to her the box as well, and my watch, and gave her an IOU besides for five pounds, and then she ‘squared’ it with the detective, and he went off.
“That’s how I came to be a ‘dress lodger.’ She didn’t wait long before she opened her mind to me. She up and told me that very night: ‘You’ve got a new landlady now, my fine madam,’ said she; ‘you’ve got to work for your living now; to work for me, d’ye understand? You can’t work—can’t earn a penny without you dress spicy, and every rag you’ve got on is mine; and if you say one wry word, I’ll have ‘em off and bundle you out.’ So what could I do or say?” continued the poor wretch, tears streaming down her really handsome face; “all the girls there were ‘dress lodgers,’ and I believe that they were glad to see me brought to their level. They only laughed to hear Mother H— go on so. I’ve been a ‘dress lodger’ ever since, not being able to get a shilling for myself, for she takes away all I get, and besides is always threatening to strip me and turn me out, and to sue me for the five pounds I owe her.”
My informant asked her, “How does she exercise this amount of control over you? She is not always with you; you leave her house to walk the streets, I suppose?”
“So I do, but not alone. Dress lodgers are never allowed to do that, sir. I haven’t been one long, but long enough to find that out. There’s always a ‘watcher.’ Sometimes it’s a woman—an old woman, who isn’t fit for anything else—but in general it’s a man. He watches you always, walking behind you, or on the opposite side of the way. He never loses sight of you, never fear. You daren’t so much as go into a public for a drain of gin but he is in after you in a minute, and must have his glass too, though he isn’t allowed to do it—to have the gin, I mean; and you ain’t allowed it either, not a drop, if the old woman knows it. You’re supposed to walk about and look for your living, and the watcher is supposed to see that you do do it—to take care that you look sharp, and above all that you don’t take customers anywhere but home. And what do you get for it all? You’re half fed, and bullied day and night, and threatened to be stripped and turned out; and when you’re at home, the watcher is generally hanging about, and he’ll ‘down’ you with a ‘one’r’ in the back or side (he won’t hit you in the face, for fear of spoiling it) if Mother H— only gives him the wink, though perhaps you’ve risked getting into trouble, and stood many a glass of gin to him the night before.”
It is difficult, indeed, to imagine a human creature more deplorably circumstanced than the one whose sad story is above narrated, and who is only “one of a thousand.” There are those of the sisterhood who appear in a more hideous shape, as, for instance, the horde of human tigresses who swarm in the pestilent dens by the riverside at Ratcliff and Shadwell. These may have fallen lower in depravity, indeed they are herded in the very mud and ooze of it, but they do not suffer as the gaily-bedizened “dress lodger” does. They are almost past human feeling. Except when they are ill and in hospital, they are never sober. As soon as her eyes are open in the morning, the she-creature of “Tiger Bay” seeks to cool her parched mouth out of the gin-bottle; and “ your eyes, let us have some more gin!” is the prayer she nightly utters before she staggers to her straw, to snore like the worse than pig she is.
Soldiers’ women are different from sailors’ women. As a rule, they are much more decent in appearance, and they are insured against habits of bestial intoxication by the slender resources of the men on whose bounty they depend. It is not possible to dip very deeply into the wine-cup or even the porter-pot on an income of about fourpence-halfpenny per diem, and it painfully illustrates what a wretched trade prostitution may become that it is driven even to the barracks.
Beyond the barracks; out on to the wild bleak common, where, winter and summer, the military tents are pitched.
A year or so since there appeared in the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette three graphic and astounding letters concerning the dreadful condition of a colony of women who “squatted” amongst the furze of Curragh Common, and subsisted on such miserable wage as the soldiers there quartered could afford to pay them. These creatures are known in and about the great military camp and its neighbourhood as “wrens.” They do not live in houses, or even huts, but build for themselves “nests” in the bush. To quote the words of the writer in question, these nests “have an interior space of about nine feet long by seven feet broad; and the roof is not more than four and a half feet from the ground. You crouch into them as beasts crouch into cover, and there is no standing upright till you crawl out again. They are rough misshapen domes of furze, like big rude birds’-nests, compacted of harsh branches, and turned topsy-turvy upon the ground. The walls are some twenty inches thick, and they do get pretty well compacted—much more than would be imagined. There is no chimney—not even a hole in the roof, which generally slopes forward. The smoke of the turf-fire which burns on the floor of the hut has to pass out at the door when the wind is favourable, and to reek slowly through the crannied walls when it is not. The door is a narrow opening, nearly the height of the structure—a slit in it, kept open by two rude posts, which also serve to support the roof. To keep it down and secure from the winds that drive over the Curragh so furiously, sods of earth are placed on top, here and there, with a piece of corrugated iron (much used in the camp, apparently—I saw many old and waste pieces lying about) as an additional protection from rain. Sometimes a piece of this iron is placed in the longitudinal slit aforesaid, and then you have a door as well as a doorway. Flooring there is none of any kind whatever, nor any attempt to make the den snugger by burrowing down into the bosom of the earth. The process of construction seems to be to clear the turf from the surface of the plain to the required space, to cut down some bushes for building material, and to call in a friendly soldier or two to rear the walls by the simple process of piling and trampling. When the nest is newly made, as that one was which I first examined, and if you happen to view it on a hot day, no doubt it seems tolerably snug shelter. A sportsman might lie there for a night or two without detriment to his health or his moral nature. But all the nests are not newly made; and if the sun shines on the Curragh, bitter winds drive across it, with swamping rains for days and weeks together, and miles of snow-covered plain sometimes lie between this wretched colony of abandoned women and the nearest town. Wind and rain are their worst enemies (unless we reckon-in mankind) and play ‘old gooseberry’ with the bush-dwellings. The beating of the one and the pelting of the other soon destroy their bowery summery aspect. They get crazy, they fall toward this side and that, they shrink in and down upon the outcast wretches that huddle in them, and the doorposts don’t keep the roof up, and the clods don’t keep it down. The nest is nothing but a furzy hole, such as, for comfort, any wild-beast may match anywhere, leaving cleanliness out of the question.
In each of these wretched lairs, the writer—who, be it borne in mind, was an eye-witness of what he describes—goes on to inform us, companies of these awful “birds,” varying in number from three to six, eat, drink, sleep, cook, and receive company. As regards the furniture and domestic utensils with which each hut is provided “the most important piece of furniture was a wooden shelf running along the back of the nest, and propped on sticks driven into the earthen floor. Some mugs, some plates, some cups and saucers, a candlestick; two or three old knives and forks, battered and rusty; a few dull and dinted spoons; a teapot (this being rather a rich establishment), and several other articles of a like character, were displayed upon the shelf; and a grateful sight it was. I declare I was most thankful for the cups and saucers; and as for the teapot, it looked like an ark of redemption in crockery-ware. If they were not—as I told myself when my eyes first rested on them—the only human-looking things in the place, they did give one a comfortable assurance that these wretched and desperate outcasts had not absolutely broken with the common forms and habits of civilised life.
“Beneath it was heaped an armful of musty straw, originally smuggled in from the camp stables: this, drawn out and shaken upon the earth, was the common bed. A rough wooden box, such as candles are packed in, stood in a corner; one or two saucepans, and a horrid old tea-kettle, which had all the look of a beldame punished by drink, were disposed in various nooks in the furzy walls; a frying-pan was stuck into them by the handle, in company with a crooked stick of iron used as a poker; and—undoubtedly that was there—a cheap little looking-glass was stuck near the roof. These things formed the whole furniture and appointments of the nest, if we exclude a petticoat or so hung up at intervals. There was not a stool in the place; and as for anything in the shape of a table, there was not room even for the idea of such a thing. Except for the cups and saucers, I doubt whether any Australian native habitation is more savage or more destitute: he can get an old saucepan or two, and knows how to spread a little straw on the ground. Nor were any of the other nests (and I believe I looked into them all) better or differently furnished. The only difference was in the quantity of crockery. In every one the candle-box was to be found. I discovered that it was the receptacle of those little personal ornaments and cherished trifles which women, in every grade of life, hoard with a sort of animal instinct. In every one an upturned saucepan was used for a seat, when squatting on the earth became too tiresome. In all, the practice is to sleep with your head under the shelf (thus gaining some additional protection from the wind) and your feet to the turf-fire, which is kept burning all night near the doorway. Here the use of the perforated saucepan becomes apparent. It is placed over the burning turf when the wrens dispose themselves to rest, and as there is no want of air in these dwellings, the turf burns well and brightly under the protecting pot. Another remembrance of a decent life is seen in the fact, that the women always undress themselves to sleep upon their handful of straw, their day-clothes serving to cover them.”
The “wrens” themselves are described as being almost all young, and all, without an exception, Irish. They range from seventeen to twenty-five years old, and almost all come out of cabins in country places. Occasionally a delicate-looking “wren” may be met, but as a rule they are sturdy, fine-limbed women, full of health and strength; many are good-looking. In their style of dress, no less than undress, they are peculiar. “All day they lounge in a half-naked state, clothed simply in one frieze petticoat, and another, equally foul, cast loosely over their shoulders; though, towards evening, they put on the decent attire of the first girl I met there. These bettermost clothes are kept bright and clean enough; the frequency with which they are seen displayed on the bushes to dry, shows how often they are washed, and how well. These observations apply to the cotton gown, the stockings, the white petticoat alone; frieze and flannel never know anything of soap-and-water at all, apparently. The ‘Curragh-petticoat’ is familiarly known for miles and miles round; its peculiarity seems to be that it is starched, but not ironed. The difference in the appearance of these poor wretches when the gown and petticoat are donned, and when they are taken off again (that is to say, the moment they come back from the ‘hunting-grounds’), answers precisely to their language and demeanour when sober and when tipsy.” The communistic principle governs each “nest;” and share-and-share alike is the rule observed. “None of the women have any money of their own; what each company get is thrown into a common purse, and the nest is provisioned out of it. What they get is little indeed: a few halfpence turned out of one pocket and another when the clean starched frocks are thrown off at night, make up a daily income just enough to keep body and soul together.”
Inquiry careful and judicious disclosed to the daring literary investigator that the “wrens” take it in turns to do the marketing and keep house while their sisters are abroad “on business.” As need not be mentioned, it is the youngest and best-looking women who engage in the money-getting branch. Considering how severe are their privations, and the unceasing life of wretchedness they lead, it is not without surprise that we hear that many of the “wrens” have occupied the ground they still squat on during the past eight or nine years. “I asked one of these older birds how they contrived their sleeping-accommodation before ‘nests’ were invented. Said she, ‘We’d pick the biggest little bush we could find, and lay under it, turnin’ wid the wind.’ ‘Shifting round the bush as the wind shifted?’ ‘Thrue for ye. And sometimes we’d wake wid the snow covering us, and maybe soaked wid rain.’ ‘And how did you dry your clothes?’ ‘We jist waited for a fine day.’”
The above and much more information concerning the habits and customs of these bushwomen of the Curragh was obtained in the daytime; but this was not enough for the plucky Pall-Mall adventurer. He was well aware that the wren was a night-bird, and could only be seen in her true colours by candle-glimmer within her nest, or by the light of the stars or moon while abroad hunting for prey. Setting out after dark, our friend made his way across the common towards the nests he had visited the day before, and particularly to one known as No. 2 nest, the inmates of which had shown themselves very civil and obliging.
“As I approached it,” says the writer, “I saw but one wretched figure alone. Crouched near the glowing turf, with her head resting upon her hands, was a woman whose age I could scarcely guess at, though I think, by the masses of black hair that fell forward upon her hands and backward over her bare shoulders, that she must have been young. She was apparently dozing, and taking no heed of the pranks of the frisky little curly-headed boy whom I have made mention of before; he was playing on the floor. When I announced myself by rapping on the bit of corrugated iron which stood across the bottom of the doorway, the woman started in something like fright; but she knew me at a second glance, and in I went. ‘Put back the iron, if ye plaze,’ said the wren as I entered; ‘the wind’s blowing this way to-night, bad luck to it!’. . . I wanted to know how my wretched companion in this lonely, windy, comfortless hovel, came from being a woman to be turned into a wren. The story began with ‘no father nor mother,’ an aunt who kept a whisky-store in Cork, an artilleryman who came to the whisky-store and saw and seduced the girl. By and by his regiment was ordered to the Curragh. The girl followed him, being then with child. ‘He blamed me for following him,’ said she. ‘He’d have nothing to do with me. He told me to come here, and do like other women did. And what could I do? My child was born here, in this very place; and glad I was of the shelter, and glad I was when the child died—thank the blessed Mary! What could I do with a child? His father was sent away from here, and a good riddance. He used me very bad.’ After a minute’s silence the woman continued, a good deal to my surprise, ‘I’ll show you the likeness of a betther man, far away, one that never said a cross word to me—blessed’s the ground he treads upon!’ And fumbling in the pocket of her too scanty and dingy petticoat, she produced a photographic portrait of a soldier, enclosed in half-a-dozen greasy letters. ‘He’s a bandsman, sir, and a handsome man he IS; and I believe he likes me too. But they have sent him to Malta for six years; I’ll never see my darlint again.’ And then this poor wretch, who was half crying as she spoke, told me how she had walked to Dublin to see him just before he sailed, ‘because the poor craythur wanted to see me onst more.’
“From this woman, so strangely compounded, I learned that she had suffered so much privation last winter, that she had made up her mind not to stay in the bush another such a season. ‘At the first fall of snow I’ll go to the workhouse, that I will!’ she said in the tone of one who says that in such an event he is determined to cut his throat. ‘Why, would you belave it, sir?—last winter the snow would be up as high as our little house, and we had to cut a path through it to the mm, or we’d been ruined intirely.’
Presently the report of a gun was heard. ‘Gun-fire!’ cried my companion. ‘They’ll be back soon now, and I hope it’s not drunk they are.’ I went out to listen. All was dead quiet, and nothing was to be seen but the lights in the various bushes, till suddenly a blaze broke out at a distance. Some dry furze had been fired by some of the soldiers wandering on the common, and in search of whom the picket presently came round, peeping into every bush. Presently the sound of distant voices was heard; it came nearer and nearer, and its shrillness and confusion made it known to me that it was indeed a party of returning wrens, far from sober. They were in fact, mad drunk; and the sound of their voices as they came on through the dense darkness, screaming obscene sounds broken by bursts of horrible laughter, with now and then a rattling volley of oaths which told that fighting was going on, was staggering. I confess I now felt uncomfortable. I had only seen the wren sober, or getting sober; what she might be in that raging state of drunkenness I had yet to find out, and the discovery threatened to be very unpleasant. The noise came nearer, and was more shocking because you could disentangle the voiceS and track each through its own course of swearing, or of obscene singing and shouting, or of dreadful threats, which dealt in detail with every part of the human frame. ‘Is this your lot?’ I asked my companion with some apprehension, as at length the shameful crew burst out of the darkness. ‘Some of ‘em, I think.’ But no, they passed On; such a spectacle as made me tremble. I felt like a man respited when the last woman went staggering by. Again voices were heard, this time proceeding from the women belonging to the bush where I was spending such an uncomfortable evening. Five in all,—two tipsy and three comparatively sober,—they soon presented themselves at the door; one of them was Billy’s mother. At the sound of her voice the child woke up and cried for her. She was the most forbidding-looking creature in the whole place; but she hastened to divest herself outside of her crinoline and the rest of her walking attire (nearly all she had on), and came in and nursed the boy very tenderly. The other wrens also took off gown and petticoat, and folding them up, made seats of them within the nest. Then came the important inquiry from the watching wren, ‘What luck have you had?’ to which the answer was, ‘Middling.’ Without the least scruple they counted up what they had got amongst them—a poor account. It was enough to make a man s heart bleed to hear the details, and to see the actual money.
“In order to continue my observations a little later in a way agreeable to those wretched outcasts, I proposed to ‘stand supper,’ a proposition which was joyfully received, of course. Late as it was, away went one of the wrens to get supper, presently returning with a loaf, some bacon, some tea, some sugar, a little milk, and a can of water. The women brought all these things in such modest quantities that my treat cost no more (I got my change, and I remember the precise sum) than two shillings and eightpencehalfpenny. The frying-pan was put in requisition, and there seemed some prospect of a ‘jolly night’ for my more sober nest of wrens. One of them began to sing—not a pretty song; but presently she stopped to listen to the ravings of a strong-voiced vixen in an adjoining bush. ‘It’s Kate,’ said one, ‘and she’s got the drink in her —the devil that she is.’ I then heard that this was a woman of such ferocity when drunk that the whole colony was in terror of her. One of the women near me showed me her face, torn that very night by the virago’s nails, and a finger almost bitten through. As long as the voice of the formidable creature was heard, everyone was silent in No. 2 nest—silent out of fear that she would presently appear amongst them. Her voice ceased: again a song was commenced; then the frying-pan began to hiss; and that sound it was, perhaps, that brought the dreaded virago down upon us. She was heard coming from her own bush, raging as she came. ‘My God, there she is!’ one of the women exclaimed. ‘She’s coming here; and if she sees you she’ll tear every rag from your back!’ The next moment the fierce creature burst into our bush, a stalwart woman full five feet ten inches high, absolutely mad with drink. Her hair was streaming down her back; she had scarcely a rag of clothing on; and the fearful figure made at me with a large jug, intended to be smashed upon my skull. I declare her dreadful figure appalled me. I was so wonder-stricken, that I believe she might have knocked me on the head without resistance; but, quick as lightning, one of the women got before me, spreading out her petticoat. ‘Get out of it!’ she shouted in terror; ‘run!’ And so I did. Covered by this friendly and grateful wren, I passed out of the nest, and made my way homeward in the darkness. One of the girls stepped out to show me the way. I parted from her a few yards from the nest, and presently ‘lost myself’ on the common. It was nearly two o’clock when I got to Kildare from my last visit to that shameful bush-village.”