Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Waiting for the Bells

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IT was a poor old and rheumatic night-cab-man whose vehicle I hired on New Year's Eve to carry me from one part of London to another, and it having just then struck a quarter to twelve o'clock, he wheezed out from behind his muffler that he wished me a Happy New Year. I returned the compliment, wishing him the same, and inquired if his present prospects promised to that effect?
    "Well, I don't know, sir," he replied "I lives in hopes. I don't know of anything to prewent it, 'cept it is the rheumatics. If I can only keep off them I think I might manage to rough it through the new year, same as I have the old."
    "If you are subject to rheumatism," I remarked, "wouldn't it be as well to find some sort of work to do that might keep you out of the night air and the bad weather. It would be better for you to be a. day cabman than a night one, at any rate."
    "Well, that's all 'cordin' to circumstances," he replied, with a. bit of a chuckle and as though he was about to relate a good joke - [-65-] "D'ye see, sir, it is because I am given to rheumatics that I am a night cabman. It's part of it, in a manner of speaking. It's this way. My old lady - my wife, I mean - helps out the few shillings I earn by going out doing a bit of washin' and charin'. Well, I used to drive a day cab, and go to bed o' nights like other people. But when the rheumatics are on me I groan and toss about as soon as I get warm under the blankets in a way that don't make me a very pleasant bedfellow, I can tell you. The old lady can't get a wink of sleep. She don't complain. Not she; she's too good a sort. But I know. And how could she at sixty-eight stand at the wash-tub all day if she don't get any sleep o' nights? That's why I turned night cabman. I can't earn as much, but it makes things comfortable at home, don't you see. By the time I get home in the morning the old lady has had her night's rest, and I can turn into bed and groan and kick about as much as I want to."
    And seemingly quite innocent of being unselfish almost to the extent of heroism, the kind-hearted old fellow pulled up his woollen comforter over his blue nose, and climbed up on to his driving seat.
    "The bells are a.goin' it pretty, ain't they, sir?" he remarked. "And I tell you what; I'd a sight sooner be a-driving a night cab and hearing of 'em than I'd be layin' awake, like many in all manner of places are, and listening, and thinking about what perhaps wasn't very pleasant."
    Lying awake and listening, who shall tell their number? The sick, the sad, the sorrowful, in homes where comfort reigns, in hospitals, in workhouses and prisons, in convict strongholds even, where the blackest sheep of the human fold are penned. Very moving pictures of wakeful ones rise before the mind's eye of one who has moved amongst those poor branded wretches, and knows something of their habits and ways. Of the convicts at Portland, for instance, in their separate, little, horribly cold houses of corrugated zinc, and their asphalte floors. So biting is the air within these places on winter nights, that the incarcerated ones are in the habit of extemporising a warming-pan to abate the shivering of their limbs when they retire to bed.
    All the utensils of their cell are of zinc, including a bowl with a wooden handle for washing purposes. They burn candle to light them after dark, a certain number of inches being allotted to each man, and on a certain signal sounding bed-time the candles are all supposed to be extinguished; but having served him as a lamp, the Portland convict has a way of making his bit of candle serve him as a fire also. Instead of extinguishing it he claps his washing bowl over the flame until the metal vessel is almost too hot to touch and then he wraps it in his jacket, and takes it to his cold mattress, [-66-] hugging it in his arms as a comforter. He may have another comforter as well, not by that exercise of his ingenuity; but by hard striving to do his best to please his keepers he may, in course of time, have conferred on him the precious privilege of being permitted to receive the photograph of a friend.
    And it is found that among the ruffian company there are many of the younger men who are married, who perhaps weakly, rather than wickedly, have slid into the ways of crime and met with its terrible punishment, and hail this boon with inexpressible gratitude, since it enables them to have in their keeping the pictured face of the wife who, despite all their faults, they still love very dearly, and for whose sake they swear each night before they close their eyes that when their sentence expired, they will lead an amended life, and enjoy the blessings of a happy home again.
    One may be sure that on the last night of the Old Year the wife's portrait will not be forgotten. In the black darkness and with it pressed to his lips the sobbing thief will lie and listen for the striking of twelve on the great prison bell- the knell of the shameful year and the ushering in of the New Year, only a few months of which, perhaps, will be tainted with convict recollections, and then for precious liberty! Then is he a man again, with her trusting face to cheer him and her faithful courage to make him strong. Good resolutions but too often fail, yet Heaven knows this man is earnest enough as he lies awake and listens for the striking of the bell-to do what? To kiss the tear-stained photograph at each separate chime, and whisper anew his solemn promises as to the future.
    Again, in the workhouses the church bells may be heard within the whitewashed walls, especially in the stillness of the night, and, when they have the long account of twelve to proclaim, how many are lying awake, staring at the dark and listening! In the old folks' dormitory, for instance, a woeful watch-night is it for scores of those whose shrunken cheek presses the hard pillow, and the more so, perhaps, after the mild excitement that Christmas brings into even a workhouse ward. It brings couples together that at ordinary times the Poor-law sets asunder; and there is the banquet of roast beef and pudding, and the half-pint of beer, and maybe the unwonted luxury of a quarter- ounce of snuff or a half-ounce of tobacco. All very proper and enjoyable to such an extent that for the time being it makes the grey- haired paupers forget everything but the treat in progress. But the worst of it is, after such stirring times, there comes reaction.
    Their stagnant lives have been for a little while stirred, but when the commotion has ceased the dreariness that ensues seems worse to bear than before. Nor are they in the least cheered by old memories that-ghost-like-come crowding round the narrow pallet as soon as the gas is put out. These ghosts of the past begin to assemble the night after Christmas night, and their number increases, for one calls up another, and the links of the chain are innumerable, until the crowd culminates on the last night of the old year, and whether he will or no the poor old workhouse man or woman is compelled to hold a dismal review. No one word is spoken, though the dormitory contains five-and-forty beds all of a row, but there is not an iron [-67-] bedstead there that ghosts of the past have not gathered round, thicker and thicker as the hands of the clock climb up with tiny strides, and presently reach midnight.
    I don't know how it might be were the choice really before me, but as I now think about it, I would a thousand times rather be at rest beneath the churchyard grass, than be one of those lie- awakes in the old men's ward, huddled under my shoddy bed rug. If I were a moral old man, and properly religious, I should bow to my fate with meek resignation, and since no better might be, make the best of it; but I can scarcely imagine myself in such a Christian condition of mind as to be able to defy and banish saddening reflections. I can't conceive a more melancholy object than an old man, past work and self-dependence, who has outlived the patience of those who had long borne with him and helped him, just enough to keep their grudged charity in countenance, forgotten and neglected even by his children, withering out his remnant of life within a workhouse walls.
    Under such circumstances it must be sad indeed to lie awake on the Old Year's last night and think-and think of old times and old faces-of a face that once was not Wrinkled and pinched with care, but fresh and blooming, and the crowning blessing of his young manhood's prime. Who at that time could have dreamt even that in his old age he would be thankful for workhouse shelter? For years and years he was perhaps a prosperous man, jovial and hospitable, and with means to gratify his chief delight, which was to gather his friends and acquaintances around him at holiday times.
    On New Year's Eve, for example, not once nor twice, but a score of times and more, now he cares to look back, has he sat at the head of his well-spread table, with welcome guests on every side, and every man with his glass charged, waiting, as he is now waiting, for chime of midnight, to grasp each other by the hand and drink a Happy New Year.
    Well, well! Thank Heaven that she, his old wife, was taken from him when that last crushing blow of misfortune fell and ruined him. A thousand times better- though at the time he thought it the cruelest loss of all-than that she should have lived to have her white hair shamed with a workhouse cap. That was five years ago, and now another year is just closing, and yet another dawning just as desolate, just as hopeless as the last. A long, long lane with neither break nor turning, and with a pauper's grave yawning for him at the end! Why, it would be far better if- Ding-dong, ding-dong! There go the chimes of the parish church at last, and it has struck twelve o'clock and the spell is broken, and with a sigh the poor old fellow turns on his pillow and has closed his eyes to sleep it is to be hoped, and so forget all about it.
    And who is so likely to lie awake and listen for the solemn tolling that tells of the old year's [-68-] last moments, and for the merry hopeful peal as those who have lain long ill in hospital? Mothers with children at home, who she knows miss her so sorely, though on visiting days those who come to see her, never fail to bring her a cheerful report of how nicely the house affairs are managed by the elder sister or a kind neighbour, and endeavour to comfort her with the assurance that when she is cured of her lingering ailment, she will find everything at home as bright and comfortable as when she was carried away. "When" she is cured!
    The weary weeks she has waited for some more hopeful reply to her oft-repeated question:
    "When is it likely I may go out, nurse?"
    "You must have patience."
    That is the answer invariably. If they would only mention a day, even though it were a month hence, it would not be so hard to bear with. Well, please God, the new year may bring with it a favourable change for her, and thinking of those at home, she pictures them just as they are sitting round the fire with their father, she listens for the striking of the clock, just as they are listening, and as though there was wafted to them through the frosty air the words of the earnest prayer poor mother whispers as the chimes cease. Says father, sitting at the fire with the children.- 
    "And now that we've heard it strike, we'll go to bed, youngsters, and Lord send we may have her among us again many months before we hear new year's bells again."
    Lying awake and listening in the silent wards is many a rough- handed bread winner struck down and rendered helpless for the time by accident or disease. Lucky for him if he is a prudent man and entitled to sick pay from his club; but, even with that welcome help, the difference between it and the sum of his wages is so wide that he needs no telling how matters are at home, and that, with all his good helpmate's pinching and contriving, the cupboard must sometimes be well nigh bare and the stock of coals such as to make it necessary to put the hungry grate on half rations.
    He is weary of-the old year for its unkind treatment of him, and has a superstitious belief that he shall not get better while it lasts. With the first of January luck may turn over a new leaf for him. So he lies and watches the clock, and when the hour and the minute hand both declare that they have ticked their last in the old year's service, and when at the self-same moment there is borne to his listening ear the merry pealing of church bells, the poor patient is quite confirmed in his opinion that the year that is come, and not that which has gone is his true friend, and he turns over and composes himself for sleep, feeling better already.
    But there are others besides women and men who lie in hospital on New Year's Eve-the children. As everyone is aware, there are in London several institutions devoted entirely to the reception of poor suffering little creatures, from baby age to ten or twelve. Take the one in Great Ormond Street, for example, with its spacious wards and long rows of tiny cots, each one containing a mite of a child doomed for a time to live a bed-life. Some, under surgical treatment, are there for months. in certain instances as long as a whole year.
    Patients are there who, with crooked limbs in slow process of being put straight, are kept in a [-69-] certain position by strong, though slender chains, which show at the cot side, and to which weights are attached. It is notorious that at the excellent establishment in question the magic of kindness is so effectually exercised by nurses and doctors that the most rebellious subject is subdued before even he himself is aware of it.
    Of all child trials none can be crueler or harder to bear than, sick and sad, to be carried to the hospital by a mother of all people in the world, she to whom the little sufferer clings closest, and, without a word of preparation or notice, left among strangers. Hundreds of us, when grown up, talk of dying of a broken heart, through troubles that are insignificant by comparison. But at the Children's Hospital the authorities have a way of managing such matters by which they can almost warrant that a child so left, trembling with fear, and sobbing as though each sigh, must be its last, will be found a few hours afterwards contentedly settled in its small couch playing with a toy, or delighted with a picture book, or engaged in confidential conversation with its next bed-neighbour.
    But there must be times when these little people - especially those whose infirmities keep them prisoners there along, long time - must grow sad and homesick, and yearn for the day when brothers and sisters, mother and father shall be restored to them. Who can doubt, when at the stroke of twelve on New Year's Eve the bells ring out, many are lying awake and listening to their music, knowing that they said the new year was come, and hearing who shall say what whisperings of promise in their pealing voices besides?
    Bells, as we know, chime well with the fanciful imaginations of children. There was one-he was growing a big boy, too-who once sat on a stone at Highgate and distinctly heard the bells of Bow Church, in Cheapside, invite him to retrace his steps Cityward, and promising as an inducement that he should be Lord Mayor of London. Why, then, should not the midnight bells that ring on New Year's Eve proclaim to the little hospital patients who, racked with aches and pains, perhaps lay awake listening, that good times are close at hand, and that the New Year, being as it were a child itself, would take compassion on them presently, and make them well and strong. So may it be.

source: 'One of the Crowd' [James Greenwood], The Mysteries of Modern London, 1883