[ ... back to menu for this book]
THE SUGAR-BAGS DEFENCE FUND.
TURNING over some old papers that were calculated I to serve
as remembrancers of some of the more noteworthy incidents and experiences of my
district work, I came across a subscription-list headed "The Sugar-Bags
Defence Fund," and containing a number of such signatures - most of them in
one handwriting, but attested by the crosses of the individuals - as Crockery
Jack, a shilling; Big Kate, sixpence; Busker Bill, a shilling; One-armed
Hopkins, ninepence: Darkey Rogers, ninepence; Donkey Smith, a shilling; Dry Land
Lawson, sixpence; Mother Badger, a shilling. These signatures, strange as they
looked, were not playful inventions of people desiring to do good by stealth;
they were the regular sobriquets of the subscribers, and were in most cases
characteristic. For instance, Crockery Jack was a hawker of crockery; and Donkey
Smith was the proprietor, manager, and driver of three or four donkeys, that
were hired out to holiday-makers in the summer months, and to costermongers and
other itinerant tradesmen in the winter. Busker Bill was a "busking,"
that is, wandering, musician; and Dry Land Lawson was a
[-102-] worthy of the type known as dry land, or "turnpike"
sailors-sturdy, able-bodied impostors, whose line is to beg, or, if opportunity
serves, extort, under guise of selling tracts narrating the dreadful shipwrecks
from which they have escaped with bare life.
The sight of this subscription-list reminded me that I had preserved it as a sort of curiosity of literature, reminded me too that it had a history.
On the morning following the death of Fly Palmer I was passing along one of the leading streets of the district, and was brought to a standstill by a gentleman who, standing on a doorstep, saluted me with a jauntily uttered "Morning, sir," as I came up to him. As a whole he was a horsey-looking gentleman. The suit of light grey tweed in which he was attired was tight fitting and sportingly cut, his scarf was loud in colour, his horse-shoe breast pin large in size, his boots glittered with patent leather and fancy buttons, and he wore a shiny, curly-brimmed hat, stuck on the side of his head.
He was a cool gentleman too, and he evidently enjoyed the puzzled air with which I regarded him.
"Can't quite make me out, eh?" he said, smiling. "Well, think I can freshen your memory there, though: Button-hole Row. Does anything knock now, eh?"
Something did knock, that is to say, the name he had mentioned "freshened my memory," for I instantly recalled the face as that of the man who had directed me to Button-hole Row, when I had been looking for it under its map-name of Foundry Lane.
[-103-] "Ah, that fetches you!" he exclaimed, smiling; but his manner abruptly changing to seriousness, he asked-
"Did you see any one leaving me as you came up?"
"No," I answered briefly.
"Well, that doesn't matter much," he replied. "You know her; it was Fly Palmer's Poll. She tells me that you were with old Braidy at Palmer's death-bed."
"Yes, I was at his death-bed," I answered, adding, "a terrible death-bed scene it was."
"So Poll has been telling me," he said ; "and if it is true-as I have no doubt it is - that the memories of their whole past life flash back upon the dying, I don't wonder at it. Can guess that his recollections must have been ugly chickens to come home to roost upon him in his dying hour, and can quite understand his not dying game."
"He died penitent, which is a grander thing," I said.
"Well, yes," answered the other, "better so than that he should have passed
'Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd,
No reckoning made, but sent to his account
With all his imperfections on his head.'
So far he had spoken and quoted in all earnestness, and indeed with a certain degree of solemnity; but his usual mercurial manner asserted itself when, on concluding the quotation, he struck a theatrical attitude, and added, "Hamlet I verbally altered."
"Do you read Shakspeare then?" I asked.
[-104-] "Well, I used to read him a goodish bit, when I was a younger and better fellow than I am now," he answered, "and, as you hear, I can still spout him a little; fact is, it's part of my business to be able to do a bit in the language of the poets' line. People would hardly think it to look at them; but the rank and file of such quarters as this are greatly taken with the 'flowery.' As long as it is given with a flourish, it don't much matter whether they understand it or not. If ever I'm at a loss, I shove in a bit of doggerel of my own, and it generally goes down all right, especially as, barring old Braidy, there is no one else hereabout as can tip them the flowery at all. Speaking of old Braidy," he rattled on in his rapid, jerky style, "I've sent round for him to come and do a confab with me, about a matter I have in hand; that's why I have stopped you - matter in question arises out of Palmer's death, and so I thought you would feel interested in it, might perhaps be able to lend a hand. Will you come into my crib here, and wait till Bible comes?"
While I stood hesitating what to answer, he broke into a light laugh, in which, however, there could be detected a certain tone of bitterness.
"Ah, well, never mind," he said; "we'll wait for him here; though really, you know, I don't look quite the style of customer to go in for decoying and robbing passers-by."
I am afraid that, if I had subjected myself to very strict self-examination, I should have found that it had been [-105-] some vague general ideas anent passers-by being decoyed and robbed that had caused my hesitation; but, evading such self-examination, I smilingly answered-
"Oh I it was scarcely so bad as that. But, to be candid, you did not strike me as quite the sort of customer to be associated in any business with Mr. Braidy."
"Right you are - in a general way," he answered readily enough; "but, then, you see, there are strange associations, and strange many other things, in a neighbourhood like this. I can remember a time when the idea of my becoming what I have become would have appeared much more strange to me, than such a thing as a true old Christian like Braidy associating with a fellow who is out of the pale of honest society."
He spoke with an affectation of cool cynicism, but it was easy to see that he was really moved. With a sincere desire to soothe him, I said I felt sure that the particular object in connection with which he sought Braidy's assistance was a good one.
"I believe it to be a good one," he answered, "and I believe old Bible will think so too. It is to do what we can to help poor Sugar-Bags in her trouble."
"Sugar-Bags!" I exclaimed in amazement. "The woman who -"
"Yes, the woman who murdered Fly Palmer, if you like to put it that way," he broke in, seeing I hesitated for a word. "The woman whose hands are stained with the life-blood of a fellow-creature - who, knowing only [-106-] that of her, the world will be inclined to regard as a 'female fiend,' 'a human tiger,' or any other penny-a- liner-christened monster; a thing to shudder at and shrink from - perhaps strangle."
He spoke with the utmost vehemence, and with a sternness of expression such as one would scarcely have thought him capable of, but, pausing at this point for breath, he grew calmer, and when he resumed he spoke in a lower and somewhat apologetic tone.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "I know it is both rude and wrong of me to fly out in that way. Still, that is how Sugar-Bags would appear to outsiders if she went before them undefended; and my object is to see that she does not stand friendless in her hour of need. She is not the woman that that one unhappy act would seem to stamp her. The blow was struck in mere madness and terror, and, take her for all in all, she is more to be pitied than condemned. She is nothing to me, but she is unfortunate and friendless, and so overcome by horror at the result of her own mad act as to be helpless, and therefore I would help her."
I said that I had no doubt of his good intention in the matter; and that there was no necessity for his justifying himself to me over it.
"It isn't exactly that," he answered, "I wouldn't justify myself to any one; but I saw how you looked at the mention of Sugar-Bags' name, and I thought how ready the world is to judge hardly. I was rather railing at the world than justifying myself or blaming you."
[-107-] "And how do you propose to help the woman ?" I asked.
"By getting up a subscription to raise the means to defend her."
"A subscription among the people hereabouts?"
"Yes, a purely local subscription."
To a stranger, a subscription in so poor a quarter might have seemed a strange idea. As a matter of fact, however, subscriptions are of very common occurrence in such neighbourhoods, and notably for the purpose of funerals; of saving some dead friend or acquaintance from that horror most dreaded of all by the poor - a pauper's burial. It was therefore only in reference to the particular object in view, not to the general notion of a subscription, that I asked-
"Do you really think they would give?"
"I believe they would if the thing is properly managed," he answered; "though I want to hear what old Braidy says on that point before I take action. I can see your idea is that a feeling of friendship for Palmer might stand in the way, but I find a great deal more sympathy for her than sorrow for him; and, knowing the reputation that he bore, I'm not surprised at it."
"What reputation did he bear, then?" I asked.
"That of a traitor and informer," was the prompt and emphatic answer. "He was nicknamed 'Fly' Palmer, because he had been so fly - so knowing as to have avoided ever being convicted, though it was notorious that he lived by crime. He was what some would think [-108-] wise in his generation. He worked upon the cat's-paw principle, and not only used his tools, but sacrificed them. If he was not convicted, those who were associated with him generally were; and, though no case was ever fully brought home to him, there is no doubt that, in some instances, he betrayed his fellow-criminals; furnished the police 'information I received,' which condemned them. I'm not saying this as against his memory, or in her extenuation; I simply state it as a fact, justifying my belief, that there would be no special objection, even among the Barker's Buildings fraternity, to subscribe to a 'Sugar-Bags Defence Fund.'"
"And the upshot of all this is, that you want a subscription from me?" I said.
"No," he replied, shaking his head, "I wasn't leading up to that. Of course, if the thing is set a-going, I would be glad if you did subscribe, but I had no idea of touting for subscriptions now. I merely spoke to you because your coming up just after Palmer's Poll had referred to you, had put it into my head. In fact, now I come back to it, I almost think my first intention in stopping you was to mention to you what Palmer's Poll had been speaking to me about, as I was under the impression that you had noticed her leaving me as you came up."
"And what might she have been speaking about?" I asked, for on his first mentioning that she had been with him, I had felt somewhat curious to know.
"Well, curiously enough, about a subscription," he [-109-] answered, "though not, as you will easily guess, the Sugar-Bags one. She wanted me to get up one to bury Palmer."
"But, of course, you couldn't?"
"No; seeing that I was already turning over the other affair in my mind, I couldn't have acted for her under any circumstances," he answered; "but, apart from that, the idea was altogether a mistake. As gently as I could I put it to her that, rightly or wrongly, he had been unpopular, and that to ask subscriptions promiscuously would be bad policy; at same time, gave her a note to a leading melter, pointedly suggesting that he and a few more of his kidney should make a 'whip round,' to the extent of raising sufficient to put Palmer decently under ground, as parish authorities pottering about his room might make discoveries that would be ugly for some people. I fancy they'll make the whip. Halloo, here comes the messenger I sent for Braidy!" and as he spoke, he indicated by a nod of the head a boy coming along on the opposite side of the street.
"Well, is he coming?" he asked, as the boy came up to where we were standing.
"No, he has gone to the court," was the answer.
"That will do," he said, in a tone of dismissal; then, turning to me, he went on, "He must be gone to hear Sugar-Bags' first examination. I'll go too. Suppose you won't care about going?"
"Well, I would not have thought of going of my own accord," I answered; but what he had been saying had [-110-] interested me, and I rather thought now that I should like to hear the examination.
"All right, then," he said, "only you know you needn't stand on ceremony with me - needn't walk through the streets with me unless you like."
He spoke seriously, and without bitterness; but, putting the point aside as lightly as I could, I started for the court with him.
Outside the court there was a strong muster of people from our district, and especially of the Barker's Buildings set; and as we made our way through their midst I could gather that the burden of their song was, "Poor Sugar-Bags!" Inside, too, the court was crowded; but, following in the wake of my companion, who pushed forward with a most business-like air, I secured standing-room at a point from which I had a good view of the prisoner's face when she was brought in. It was a younger, more comely face than from the brief glimpse I had obtained of it on the previous day I had supposed it to be; but it was deadly pale, and wore a haggard, despairing expression, that left no doubt as to the intense agony of mind she was enduring. Though many eyes sought hers, she kept her gaze steadfastly fixed on the ground, save once or twice when she turned it timidly to where Braidy sat watching with a look of kindly sorrow in his soft brown eyes.
The examination was a short one, being merely a formal preliminary to a remand, the only evidence given being that of the constable who had arrested her, and [-111-] who spoke to expressions having fallen from her which amounted to a confession that she was the person who had struck the blow.
With eyes still averted, and the agonized expression of her countenance unchanged, she was taken from the bar, and her removal was greeted by a general sigh of relief among the spectators, the majority of whom immediately left court.
On reaching the street a man accosted my companion, who, turning to me, exclaimed in his jerky, self-satisfied way, "Business! Must be attended to, you know; soon knock it off, though; won't detain you long; mind just stopping old Braidy if you see him going?"
In less than a minute after, Braidy did come out, and, touching him upon the shoulder, I bade him good day.
"Oh, good day, sir," he replied, looking up; "I saw you come into court with Shiny Smith.
"Shiny Smith!" I exclaimed; "is that his name!"
"Well, he calls himself Smith," answered Braidy, "and others call him Shiny, I suppose, because in slang phrase it is his nature to be constantly 'cutting a shine.'"
"What is he at all?" I asked, for I felt curious upon the point, having already been turning it over in my mind without arriving at any conclusion. My first impression had been that he was simply a swell-mobsman, hut that idea had not borne reflection. Swell-mobsmen are birds of prey that flock together, and I knew that there was no nest of them in my district.
"What is he!" echoed Braidy, who for the moment [-112-] seemed puzzled by the question; "well, I think he would be best described as regular scribe and irregular lawyer to the doubtful and dangerous classes hereabout."
"A lawyer!" I exclaimed significantly; "that accounts for his interesting himself so warmly about the defence of this woman."
"I did not know he was interesting himself in the matter," Braidy answered; "still, if he is, it does not follow that he is doing so selfishly. He is a bad man, and yet not wholly bad. Not that he is particularly exceptional in that; few people that haven't lived among such a set as I have done would credit the amount of good - I mean goodness of heart and kindliness of feeling - there is latent among bad people. I often think that with better chances many of them would have been better men. Not that that applies to Shiny. I feel convinced that he in his day has had good chances. He is one of the might-have-beens, but I have not given up hope that he is yet among the may-bes. More than once when I have been with him it has struck me that his flourishing manner is put on to stifle the still, small voice; and where conscience wants 'putting down' there is always chance of amendment."
Before any reply could be wade Shiny Smith joined us, and in his most rattling manner saluted Braidy-
"Ah, here you are then!" he exclaimed, seizing his hand. "Glad to see you taking an interest in poor Sal's case; been on the hunt for you to speak to you about her; thinking of getting up a whip round ; wanted to see [-113-] that you thought of it; like the idea myself; think it sounds well, you know: The 'Sugar-Bags Defence Fund. '"
"I am going to her room to take possession of a few little things I have promised her to hold in charge," answered Braidy, with what seemed coldness by contrast with the other's tone; "if you want to talk anything over you had better come there with me."
"All right, old friend," answered Shiny, quite unabashed; "we're with you. I've enlisted Mr. ---- here in the cause."
I was about to say something in modification of this assertion, but guessing my intention he anticipated me-
"Well! well!" he hurried on, "provisionally, of course; supposing you are shown that it is a deserving case."
The three of us then walked on in silence until we reached Barker's Buildings.
The landlady of the house in which Sugar-Bags had occupied a room made no objections on Braidy explaining his errand.
"Well, the rent is a couple of weeks behindhand," she said, "but that is neither here nor there now. I wouldn't be the one to keep back so much as a cutting of twine belongin' to poor Sal. The furniture, what little there is of it, is mine; whatever small traps of hers there may be you'll find quite safe."
"This was her room," she went on, when she had led the way up to it, "and many's the hard day's, and, for [-114-] the matter of that, hard night's work she done in it; and many's the sore heart, and good cry, and hungry belly she's had in it, poor thing; and to think that she should a' come to this, all in a minute, as you may say, she as never did a wrong act in her life before, and no one - the police, nor no one else - can say she did, for all the sort she lived among and the husband she had, and being often without a bit to put in her mouth. You must live with people to know em, as the sayen is, and I ain't had her livin' in my house without knowing some-think about her. She wasn't the one to make a song about her troubles, specially as it would have told agen him; but what she had to put up with and go through, and how she did put up with it and go through it, would soften a heart of stone to think of."
The recollection had undoubtedly softened her heart. She was a coarse, hard-featured woman; and I subsequently learned that she was generally reputed a hardhearted one in the matter of "bundling out" lodgers who were in arrears of rent with her; but, however unused to the melting mood in a general way, her emotion now was unmistakable, and it was easy to see that her volubility was intended to hide an inclination to tears. "It's her as has done it," she resumed, when she had taken her breath, "but it's him as ought to suffer for it by rights, for it was all along o' him, with his letting hisself be led by the nose and givin' way to the drink,. though I say it as has a husband of my own about as big a drunkard as there well can be, but you don't catch me [-115-] going after mine like she did after hers. Many a time I've known her live on a crust a day; not that that was much punishment to her, for she was often too heart-sick to eat - and then spend her last copper in getting a bit o' something tasty for supper for him; and go to the public-house to beg him to come home to it. I've seen her myself coaxing him and my-dearing him, and clingin' to him and looking up in his face that loving that you would think that any man couldn't but go. But no! When he looked like going, Palmer or some of the rest of the gang would jeer him into throwin' her off; and then she'd creep home and fling herself on her knees by the bed, and cry her heart out pretty near. All the same, she would save him the supper and have it there for him when he did come home, and then she'd try to coax him again as loving as ever - I've heard her with my own ears. 'Oh Bill!' she would say, 'why will you act like this? it will break my heart altogether, if this goes on much longer. You know how wrong it is; then why won't you give up your evil companions, and strive to be a better man? But there you will, now, won't you, dear; promise me, now.'
"And then, though I was only listening outside, I could tell she was putting her arms round his neck. Then he would come out with his regular excuse: he couldn't get work, his character was gone, and he must drown care.
"'No, it isn't drowning care, Bill,' she would answer him, 'it's bringing care, and making bad worse. Give up [-116-] the cursed drink, and I'll work for us both till better times come for us, as I'm sure they would come, if you would only turn your back on your evil companions.' Then he'd tell her that he would - ay, and swear to it too; and I dare say he meant it right enough at the time. Sometimes he would be steady for a day or two, and sometimes even get a day's work at the docks; and then you should have seen how pleased and proud she was, and what a fuss she made about him. But it never lasted; the gang would get hold of him, and he'd go off on the drink again, and be worse than ever; and so it went on till it come to what it did.
"Why," she was beginning again, when Shiny Smith unceremoniously cut her short-
"Ah, yes! To be continued in our next," he said, motioning her to the door; "your feelings do you credit and all that sort of thing, but we want to have a little talk among ourselves, if you don't mind - see?" She apparently did see, for muttering that what she had said was right, she retired.
"What she says is true enough," observed Shiny, shutting the door of the room after her; "but she would have talked all day if she hadn't been checked. There's one thing," he went on, glancing round the apartment, "she might well say 'what little there is of it' when she spoke of the furniture: a rickety chair, a deal slab table, and a shaky truckle bed, isn't an unnecessary amount of furniture, to say the least of it. As we are a council of three, it just runs to a seat each, so, Braidy, I vote you [-117-] to the chair. Mr. -- here had better take the table, which, though rough, looks pretty firm; and if the bed goes down with me, I shall fall soft."
Without making any direct reply, Braidy, pointing to a cupboard beside which Shiny was standing, asked-
"Is there an old tea-caddy in there?"
"Yes, here it is," answered the other, opening the cupboard, and handing out a small caddy of various-coloured woods. "Is that her casket of treasures?"
"Treasures of memory, perhaps," answered Braidy. "You may easily guess that they have no pawnable or sellable value, or they wouldn't be here. Here they are, "he went on, opening the caddy, and turning over the papers in it; her marriage certificate, some faded photographs, a few old letters, and a character as house-maid. "And now, Smith," he concluded, as he put back the papers, "I'm ready to listen to you."
"Well, the sum and substance of what I have to say is - what do you think of my idea of a general 'whip round' to defend Sugar-Bags ?"
"Well, broadly, and supposing I were assured it meant nothing more than a desire to obtain legal assistance for her, I would have nothing to say against it."
Braidy spoke with a coldness that appeared to surprise as well as disappoint Shiny, who observed-
"Well, that's poor encouragement, and, excuse me saying it, it's scarcely like yourself; perhaps I don't quite 'take.'"
"Perhaps not," responded Braidy, rather drily; "but [-118-] I'll tell you exactly what I mean. I find that in the Buildings here there is a strong disposition to regard her as something very like a heroine. There are some of them who seem to think - and, indeed, don't hesitate to say - that even had she acted deliberately, she would be justified in what she had done; and if your proposed subscription is in any way intended to sanction that opinion, then I am conscience-bound to disapprove of it strongly, however harsh it may seem of me to do so. I speak in all humbleness: but, however it may be with those around me, it would ill indeed beseem me to forget that it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.'"
"I assure you, Braidy," answered Shiny, "that, so far as I am concerned, there is no thought of justification, though I am free to confess there is of extenuation. My grounds for moving in the matter, as I have already partially explained to our friend here, are, that I believe she was for the moment in a frenzied state, that she is friendless, and has been dragged down to her present condition by too faithful love for one who was unworthy of it."
"There, I can quite agree with you," answered Braidy in a much more hearty tone than he had hitherto spoken in. "Understand, I do not speak against befriending her, poor creature, - the Lord forbid, - I only speak against the opinion I mentioned, and I am happy to say that she has no part in it. She feels the greatness of her sin, is bowed down by it, and is as contrite as a poor [-119-] sinner can be. So far as I honestly could, I spoke nothing but words of consolation to her."
"You have seen her, then," I observed, taking part in the conversation for the first time.
"Yes," he said, "she sent for me last night, and I was permitted to converse with her."
"But about the subscription, Braidy," said Shiny, who seemed to fear that the conversation might go off at a tangent; "do you think it would be a success?"
"I think that may be taken for granted," was the answer.
"Well, yes, I think it may," said the other; "but will you put your name to it? for that, after all, is my point with you."
"Will you take it round yourself?" questioned Braidy.
"Well, if you will promise me not to allow me to be misunderstood on the point I've spoken of, you can put me down for a shilling, which is about as much as I can afford."
"Don't mention the amount!" exclaimed Smith enthusiastically, "your name is a tower of strength; with that, and the estimation she was held in, to work upon, we shall do well."
"If, previous to this unhappy business, she was the sort of person you and her landlady would make her out to be," I said, addressing Shiny, "I can scarcely understand her having stood in good estimation in a neigh-[-120-]bourhood like this. If she did, it could scarcely be upon the principle of fellow-feeling."
"Well, she undoubtedly was highly esteemed by her neighbours," said Braidy, taking up the answer. "It was a case of vice paying homage to virtue; and my experience is that vice will always do that where it sees that virtue is genuine in itself, and faithful to itself, and is not given to pharisaically thanking the Lord that it is not as others. When this Sugar-Bags, as they call her, first came here, her neighbours were very much inclined to resent her holding aloof from them, but when they come to find that her shrinking was rather from timidity than pride, that she was humble and long-suffering in her determination to live honestly, and had been brought into such a neighbourhood as theirs, by a too faithful love for a worthless husband - when they come to see how the land lay, as they would say, that though among them she was not of them, resentment was turned to respect and pity. Unhappily, as I have already told you, there is a disposition-arising out of the character the dead man bore - to approve of what she has done, but apart from that there is a general friendliness of feeling for her, so that the subscription is very likely to do well."
"Do well-of course it will!" exclained Shiny, "we'll make it do well. That'll be about the style of thing, eh, Bible?" and as he spoke he handed over a pocket-book in which he had been scribbling during the latter part of the conversation.
[-121-] "Well, that part of the business may be safely left to you, Smith," answered Braidy with a smile, and passing the pocket-book as he spoke.
It was a large-sized oblong book, and boldly written across its length was the following rather startling announcement:-
"THE SUGAR-BAGS DEFENCE FUND.
To Be or Not to Be? That Is The Question.
Shall Poor Sugar-Bags go Undefended?
Remember! Many Can Help One.
The Smallest Donation Thankfully Received."
"Strikes you as a rum start, doesn't it now,"
said Shiny, observing my look of astonishment; "dare say you think it a
caper of mine; but there you're wrong. When in Rome do as Romans do; that is the
regular sort of thing here, isn't it, Braidy?"
Braidy nodded assent, and the other resumed-
"I told you they were fond of the flowery; and there is nothing they like it better in than the heading of a subscription-list-give them a bit of sentiment for their money, and they'll part with it as freely again. 'Help one another, Boys,' or, 'Be to a Friend in distress like a Brother,' is very easily written and it draws. The Sugar-Bags heading will be mild and sensible compared with many I have done; all it wants now is two or three good names to top it - shall yours be one?"
The question came rather unexpectedly; but I an-[-122-]swered that I had no objection, provided it was understood that it was given in the same spirit in which Mr. Braidy's had been given.
"I'll take care of that," he answered; "and things being settled so far, I'll exit and see about putting the business in train."
As there was nothing further to detain Braidy, he observed that we could all leave together, and we accordingly did so, separating at the door, Braidy and Smith going in one direction, and I in another.
I had scarcely, however, got half-a-dozen paces from the threshold, when I was followed by the landlady, who exclaimed-
"Just half a minute, sir," by way of apology, and led me back to the door-step. "Beg yer pardon, sir," she said, when we came to a standstill, "but might I ax yer what's on the cards about poor Sal?"
It was scarcely flattering perhaps to have been selected - as I could see I had been - as the person most likely to be got round: but, feeling assured that her interest in the matter was a friendly one, I answered that I believed there was an idea of getting up a subscription to defend her late lodger.
"And a werry good idea too!" she exclaimed emphatically, "and here's one that'll give to the whip, if she pawns her gown to do it. They calls me a tartar, and perhaps I am, and I'd need to be to get along with some of the customers I has to deal with. But, bless yer, sir, we's all a soft spot in our 'earts, if it is only got [-123-] at, and poor Sugar-Bags got at mine, and it would had to have been a heart of stone altogether if she hadn't, poor thing. I'd come to look on her like a daughter almost, which I would have had a daughter pretty near as old as her if she had lived till now, though it's perhaps as well as she didn't, for she was but weakish, and it's a rough world, and a crowded un, and it's the weak as goes to the wall in the crush."
"How old might Sugar-Bags be, then?" I asked.
"Well, she looks forty, but she's only eight-and-twenty," answered the voluble landlady. "It's trouble as has aged her; she's gone through oceans of it. You know, sir, when the heart is full of sorrer, it will run over at times, and as she had no one else to speak to, she used to come to me, rough as I am, with her troubles, and that is how I come to know more about her than others, and to care more for her."
"What has she been?" I asked.
"Well, nothing very grand as far as that goes. Still she had been decently brought up, and was a respectable servant, and it was a come-down for her to be brought here. It was meeting her hopeful husband that was the ruin of her. He was a clerk, and went fast, and got himself into some scrape, and Palmer and one or two others of his stamp got him under their thumb; and they weren't the men to have a hold on him for nothing. They'd got some information about the crib in which she happened to be in service, and meant to crack it. But it was a big job, and before starting of it they wanted to [-124-] know more about how things stood, and to get at it they put him up on the lady-killing lay - to court the servant, you know, and get out of her all about the house. Well, he made up to her, and to make a long story short, she, thinking him a decent young fellow, falls in love with him, and I suppose he did with her as far as his shilly-shally nature would let him. What between his liking for her, and the others putting the screw on him, he played in and out - at least it was thought so - and when they did the crack they got hardly anything, and in a little while all that had been in the job, except Fly Palmer, got took and convicted. Sugar-Bags' husband, as is now, he got off for a few months, and when he comes out what does he do but go after her again. Well, he was down on his luck, and he talked fine about not having a friend in the world, and what a lesson this job would be to him, and how well he would do in the future, and all the rest of it, and I dessay he meant it at the time. The end of it was she married him, and they went to a part of London where they weren't known, and made a fresh start; but he wasn't long before he got into bad company again, and gave way to drink. Then Palmer came across him and got him here, and led him on from bad to worse, until it has come to what it has."
Such was the Barker's Buildings landlady's history of her lodger - a history which I subsequently ascertained from other sources to be substantially correct. Having heard so much of her, and having in this incidental manner come to be concerned in the organizing of the [-125-] subscription in her behalf, I could not but come to feel an interest in the fate of the unhappy Sugar-Bags, and I must confess it was with a sincere feeling of relief that I heard that her crime, reduced to manslaughter, was punished by a short term of imprisonment.
It was immediately after the expiration of this term of imprisonment that it became my lot to meet her face to face and speak to her. I was entrusted to convey to her an offer, upon the part of some benevolent persons, to enable her to emigrate; and, taking Braidy with me, I called upon her at her old landlady's on the first day of her return. She was greatly altered in appearance. She was very pale, and so thin that her clothes seemed to hang upon her. Her black hair was heavily streaked with grey, her manner was painfully nervous, and there was a timid and grief-stricken expression upon her face. I saw that my presence was calculated to put her into a state of nervous excitement, and so I delivered my message as briefly and kindly as I could. I had confidently expected to see her delighted at the news, and was therefore astonished to behold the look of dismay that came over her countenance. She could see that my surprise was not exactly of an agreeable nature, and that Braidy shared my feeling, and in a pleading tone she exclaimed-
"Oh I sir; oh! Bible don't be angry with me, and don't think me ungrateful; I know how kind you mean to be, but I couldn't go away now, my - my husband."
Neither of us made any reply in words, but we looked [-126-] what was passing in our minds; namely, that we would have thought she had had enough of such a husband.
As we remained silent she went on.
"Don't think too hardly of him, believe me he is not altogether hardened; if it is the Lord's will, his heart may be touched yet. I know how weak I have been before; I trusted only to my own strength, but I have been taught better now."
In her weakened condition her emotion was too much for her, and she sank into the only chair in the room, unable to speak further.
Seeing this, Braidy, who was evidently moved, stepped to her side, and, laying his hand kindly on her shoulder, said-
"There; I see it's too much for you; I think I understand you, though; it's brave of you, and I believe you are right. Do give up the trust in your own strength, lean upon the Almighty; pray to Him night and day, that your husband may be turned from his wickedness, and your prayer may be answered."
"I will, Bible! I will!" she exclaimed fervently, and the tears starting to her eyes as she spoke. "He shall have a home to come to, and if it is God's good will to change him we will go away together; if he won't be better I will know then that I am called upon to leave him, and I will; but I must give him one more trial."
To this resolution she adhered; nor, seeing the spirit it was couched in, could we well offer any strong objection to it. She took her old room, but she shrank from [-127-] all "neighbouring," not morosely, but with the nervous sensitiveness of one broken in spirit and wishing to be alone. Seeing this, those around, while pitying her, refrained from thrusting their sympathy upon her with a degree of delicacy and good feeling for which few would have been prepared to give them credit. On the rare occasions on which she appeared out of doors, she hurried on her way with eyes cast down, and even in the little chapel, of which she became a regular attendant, she sat apart. She resumed her former employment of sugar-bag making, and wrought at it with an eager assiduity, the meaning of which was explained when, on the eve of her husband's release from prison, she took a room in another part of London, and in humble fashion furnished it as a home. I was among the few who were entrusted with a knowledge of the whereabouts of the new residence, and I watched with a painful curiosity to see how the husband would turn out; whether he would go on in his downward career, or "turn from his wickedness," and it was with unfeigned feelings of joy that I saw that the wife's efforts to reclaim him were proving of avail. At first he was very restless, and had his former companions been at hand he would probably have lapsed into evil courses. Happily, however, he was for the time out of their reach, and by an earnest watchfulness his wife managed to keep him off "the drink." At the end of a month employment was obtained for him, and he then became steadier, and a few weeks later he began to accompany his wife to her place of worship. From this [-128-] time things went smoothly with them in their degree. They both worked hard, lived hard, and saved hard - saved so that in three years' time they were enabled to emigrate at their own cost. At intervals, Braidy still receives letters from poor Sugar-Bags. They are but ill-written and composed, and there is always a melancholy tinge about them; but, upon the whole, they show her to be about as happy as the cloud which fell upon her life will admit of her being on this side the grave.