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MY somewhat limited private library does not boast of a copy
of the slang dictionary, nor have I through any incidental means a sufficient
knowledge of slang phrases to be able to state when or why that of grass-widow
first came to be applied to married women whose husbands were living away from
them. For my present purpose, it is only necessary to mention that the phrase is
common alike to fashionable slang and the slang of low life, and has much the
same meaning in both. There is, however, one very material point of difference.
In upper and middle-class circles the grass-widow is usually found receiving a
comfortable allowance from the absent husband; but among the lower classes the
grass-widow is generally a deserted woman, - a woman, therefore, who has to
"scratch" for herself and for whatever children she may happen to have, and
who, as a rule, makes a very poor scratch of it. Mine being a waterside
district, grass-widows were, unhappily, numerous in it. Some of the deserted
women were the wives of men who, though not sea-going, had become so for the
nonce, to the extent of stowing away or working their
out to America or Australia. This class of deserters, it is perhaps worth while
to note in passing, would - if they could write at all -generally leave a scrap of
paper behind them, intimating that they had taken their departure.
"Good-bye to you and the kids - I'm off for good," was the commonest form of
these messages. Occasionally it was rather unnecessarily added, "You must
do the best you can." Sometimes there was the promise, rarely fulfilled, "If
I get on I'll send for you." One worthy, as I specially remember, gave a little
variety by leaving as his parting note a verse from a "nigger melody,"
popular at the time, the quotation running,-
"Good-bye, Sally dear;
You won't see me no more;
The railroad's finished,
And I'm off to Baltimore."
As it turned out, however, Sally was destined to again see the husband, who was of a mind to be so waggish in his desertion of her. He was not "off to Baltimore;" he was only gone to another part of the metropolis, where at the end of a few weeks he was arrested on a warrant taken out by the relieving officer of my district; and on being sent to the treadmill for three months, he was taken further from London than he had ever been before, or than he would probably ever have gone voluntarily.
The bulk of the grass-widows of my district were, however, as they would inform you, when telling the story of their troubles, the wives of sea-going men who were "away somewheres foreign, and not a sending any-[-131-]think home, not even so much as the scrape of a pen, and which they might be alive or they might be dead, or they might turn up again or they might not. Howmsumever, it was a cruel hard thing on them and their children; which they had never given any provocation, but the other way about."
With so much premised, it is scarcely necessary, I think, to explain why a certain street in my district was nicknamed "Grass-Widows' Alley." It was the favourite place of residence for the grass-widows, who, like other birds of a feather, flocked together. It was the poorest, most wretched, most-to-be-pitied spot in all the district; and that is saying a good deal. It was not exclusively inhabited by grass-widows: other widows, widows in full, as they were called by way of distinction, lived there in considerable numbers. Some families of the poorest labouring classes, which counted both husband and wife in their number, also found dwellings there, and, as in most other very poor spots, there was a sprinkling of both men and women of the undesirable class who are usually described as having no visible means of support. It was a long narrow street running between the two principal thoroughfares of the district, and any person passing along either of those thoroughfares, who had cared to glance down it, would have seen that it was also a dirty, dismal, unhealthy, overcrowded street. But few passers-by did care to pause to look down Grass-Widows' Alley - and for reasons good. At either end of the Alley, and having entrances in it, were "corner" gin palaces, [-132-] which to a considerable extent were very visibly supported by the no-visible-means-of-support class. Around their doors were generally to be found loafing a number of slouching, low-browed gentlemen of the stamp that decent citizens with portable property about them Instinctively avoid. This, added to the facts that the Alley was known to be a hotbed of contagious diseases, and was at all times pervaded with foul smells, led to the general public hurrying by it holding their noses, and keeping their eyes on their watch-guards, rather than pausing to gaze down it and note its outward aspects. Curious and characteristic enough those aspects were if taken merely as a "sight!" Heart-breakingly dreary and sad they were when you considered the terrible poverty and suffering of which they were the outward and visible sign. The "march of improvement" had marched past the place, and though the Inspector of Nuisances probably knew of its whereabouts, he had left ill alone, perhaps on the ground that his powers did not extend to removing it altogether. It was unpaved and undrained. Down its centre ran a stench-emitting gutter, choked and spreading out into more or less extensive mud pools at every few yards. What were by courtesy called the footpaths, were thickly strewn with all manner of refuse, and in the gutter swarmed innumerable hungry-looking, ill-clad, dreadfully dirty children, who for the most part had known nothing of "childhood's joys," and who were growing up to be street arabs in their girlhood and boyhood, worse in their man and [-133-] womanhood. The houses in the Alley were six-roomed ones, and were let out in apartments by the superior landlords, the plan of allowing sub-letting tenants having been tried and proved a failure, as the sub-letters made a practice of going off without paying their own rent, after having received that of the sub-tenants. In so poverty-stricken a neighbourhood, arrears of rent were, of course, common. There were no goods worth distraining upon, or to repay legal expenses, and so taking the law into their own hands the landlords or their collectors summarily "bundled out" old non-paying tenants to make room for new ones who it was presumed would be paying ones - for a time at least. These ejectments were often very painful affairs, but often too they had at least one pleasant feature connected with them, the manner, namely, in which they brought out into practical action the kindness of the poor for the poor. In many and many an already overcrowded room have I seen a corner cheerfully given up to shelter the ejected; many and many an already too scanty meal freely shared with them; shelter, food, sympathy being given in the most unostentatious spirit of charity.
The dwellings of the Alley presented an almost incredible state of dilapidation. They were old, had stood all the sack and destruction to which the desperately poor are wont to subject house property, and had never been repaired. When I came to know the place a. knocker was a rarity in it, and metal door numbers, door handles, scrapers, and spouting had all long gone the way of the [-134-] marine store dealers, while in not a few apartments even the grate had been taken away. A window with half the panes of glass remaining ranked high for light and respectability, many of them being utterly denuded of glass and roughly boarded up. Inside, the houses were equally dilapidated. The roofs let in the rain more or less freely, the ceilings and walls were smoke blackened, the staircases were dangerously rickety, and the floors broken. One noteworthy feature of the internal household arrangements was that, just inside the door of almost every house, a rough hole was knocked through the partition between the lobby and the front ground-room. It was large enough to admit the head and shoulders of a woman, and through it the tenant of the front room usually answered the door. It was "handy" in a variety of ways, but notably so in those cases in which women had been driven to pawning or selling their clothing to such a degree as left them scarcely sufficient to make themselves decently presentable - a state of things by no means uncommon in Grass-Widows' Alley.
Itinerant traders of the poorer kinds abounded in the Alley, and their "shallows" and baskets were at certain hours of the day to be seen piled in front of their dwellings, while at all times there exhaled from numbers of the houses an odour of stale - not to say stinking - fish, which, taken in conjunction with the knowledge of the sort of places in which the humble traders of the Alley must keep their "stock," was highly calculated to create a disrelish for such tea and breakfast relishes as [-135-] shrimps, winkles, herrings, and haddocks. Speaking of the shallows and baskets only being visible at certain hours reminds me that the appearance of the Alley would, to any one glancing down it, have been somewhat different - and characteristically so - at various periods of the day. As early as three o'clock in the morning lights would be seen flitting about in some of the houses, indicating to the initiated that the buyers of the Alley were making ready to tramp up to Billingsgate, Covent Garden, and other central markets. A little later - especially in the summer months-the more industrious and more robust of the seamstress division of the Alley - the shirt-makers, button-holers, and "hands" of the slop-shop "sweaters" - would be seen at their windows, commencing their weary and ill-paid labours. From half-past five to six the few regularly employed labourers living in the place would be going off to their work. About seven there commenced a scene of bustle. At that hour the buyers returned with their small stocks; and then it was a case of all hands to the pump to prepare the stocks for retailing - to tie the watercresses into halfpenny bundles, sort herrings and haddocks into sizes, and so forth. With the hawkers of relishes set out also the hawkers of hearthstones, and a band of the girls technically known as " steppers," from their seeking work at step-cleaning. The other itinerants of the Alley - a couple of chair-caners; a tinker-and-grinder; a gentleman who made day hideous by going about the streets playing on a cracked cornet; an eccentric individual, [-136-] known as "Look-at-the-Quality," who sold the mats that his wife and children made; and a collector of old hats and umbrellas - these would not start on their rounds till later. Between nine and ten the children begin to turn out for their day's play in the gutter, and a little later the relish hawkers begin to return; and, having breakfasted, the younger ones of the juvenile portion of them join the gutter brigade, while the elder ones go for a rake long shore until it is time to prepare for the afternoon round. From eleven till noon there is generally a sort of lull, and it is mostly about this time that the few outsiders, whom business takes into the Alley, are to be seen in it. The parish doctor and the relieving officer are often visiting there, and the sight of the workhouse, fever, small-pox, and general cabs are familiar in it; and still more familiar is the sight of the parish hearse. Brave Christian-minded volunteer visitors also make their way into the Alley on missions of love and mercy; but the outsiders most frequently seen in it - alas that it should be so! - are the potmen from the corner "publics," already spoken of. Each morning they collected a string of pots from it; for, amidst all its poverty, as there generally is amid all such poverty, there was drinking. On each Friday morning a special scene was to be witnessed in the Alley. Numbers of its widows, both grass and full, were to be seen trooping out with cloths under their arms, and looking comparatively jocund - as well they might, for they were among those who received out-door parochial relief and they were now on their way to receive [-137-] their weekly allowance of money and bread. For this day at least they and their children were sure of "a good rough fill;" and the children as well as the parents knew it, as they showed by the eager manner in which they ran to meet their mothers when they returned laden with the loaves.
Such, so far as I have been able to describe it, was the outward appearance of Grass-Widows' Alley, the poorest spot, as I have said, in all my poor district, and one or more such is to be found in most of the poor districts of our great cities. Cheerless and wretched, however, as was Grass-Widows' Alley in its material aspect, it was of course in the home and inner life of its inhabitants that the sorrowfullest aspect of it lay - in their hand-to-mouth life, their desperate heart-breaking struggles to keep body and soul together. Ah me! when I think of these things, what mournful memories the name of the Alley conjures up! What remembrances of children young in years but old in suffering - of gaunt, hunger-pinched faces, of women with "only the ghosts of garments on," who do not sing, but live, the Song of the Shirt, labouring from weary chime to chime for a crust of bread, and rags.
What recollections of crushed and broken lives, hopeless and despairing hearts - sin, and sorrow, and death! As I write, such memories throng thick upon me, and standing out clear from the rest is the remembrance of a dead two-year-old little girl with the angel-look already upon its face - the child to whose death my first introduction to the Alley was incidentally owing.
[-138-] On a rather warm October morning, I had occasion to call at the shop of one of the largest tradesmen of my district who was not better known among those of his own standing as a shrewd and successful business man, than he was to the poor of the neighbourhood as a charitable one. To invoke his aid in this latter character was the purpose of my visit; but finding him with his hat on just about to go out, and the matter I had in hand not being pressing, I said that, seeing he was busy, I would call upon him some other time, when in a hearty tone he answered- "Oh, I'm not in such a desperate hurry as that comes to; in fact I'm rather glad you have dropped in just now - but after you."
Taking this as an invitation to state my business, I did so. Having readily promised the assistance I had come to ask, my friend, taking a dirty, ill-written document from his pocket, asked as he unfolded it-
"Do you know anything of a Mrs. Cooper, of Grass-Widows' Alley?"
I replied that I had never heard of either the person or place, and finding that such was the case, my friend in a few words explained where in the district the Alley lay, and why it was so nicknamed, and then placing the paper in my hand concluded, "As to Mrs. Cooper, why she is just the Mrs. Cooper of that; what do you think of it?"
Spreading the document upon the head of a barrel that stood convenient I saw that it was headed in a sort [-139-] of text hand:- "the humble petition of Mary Cooper, of C--- Street, in St. N-----s Parish, Shewith and made out - not without difficulty, for in addition to being ill written it was couched in a sort of semi-legaI jargon - that the object of the petition was to solicit subscriptions towards paying the difference between the price of a pauper coffin and a plain coffin of the ordinary type. So far it was commonplace enough. My friend and I had seen scores like it; to save relatives and more particularly children, from a pauper coffin, was a thing for which the poor of the district would struggle more desperately than even to keep life in themselves. Some there were who, when appealed to on this ground, objected to the feeling as one of false pride, arguing that it mattered not to "the departed mortals" in what sort of coffin they were buried, or whether they were buried in a coffin at all; but the general opinion of the neighbour hood was in favour of the feeling, and though it may have been - as I was often told it was - weakly sentimental on my part, I shared the popular opinion. The pauper coffins were terribly slap-dash affairs, and it was a common and recognised practice between the parish undertaker and the very poor, for the latter to pay for having the coffin "made decent" as they expressively put it - having them plainly covered and lined, and furnished with handles and plates. The additions were the cheapest of their kind, the charge for making them was not large, and petitions to raise the amount were, as has been said, frequent. What had struck my friend, [-140-] what struck me, as peculiar in Mrs. Cooper's petition was, that it represented her as labouring under such a crushing accumulation of misfortunes as seemed scarcely credible - as in short suggested the petition being a fabrication, and as such inartistically overdone.
"What do you think of Mrs. Cooper?" my friend asked significantly when I had finished my perusal of the paper.
"I don't like the style of the petition," I said.
"No, more do I, as far as that goes," said my friend, "but she is scarcely to blame for that. I gather that she can't write, and I know the fellow who has written it for her. He is deputy at the common lodging-house, and thinks that this style of composition shows him a 'scolard.' He is just the sort that, under the melting influence of a pot of beer or two, would write a thing of this kind without either knowing or caring whether it was true."
"If it is not true," I said, "Mrs. Cooper is very much to blame; if it is true, she is very much to be pitied - and if possible helped."
"Just so," assented my friend; "if this statement of the position of the family is even broadly true, it is a case for much more substantial assistance than is asked for here. I think it is a case to be inquired into, and I'm going to make inquiry - will you come?"
"Yes," I said, I would go willingly, and without further words we started.
"That must be the house," said my friend, by a glance [-141-] indicating one, across the paper-patched, up-stairs window of which was fastened some old piece of white stuff to serve as a blind. Tapping at the door, we found that it was the house.
"Yes, Mrs. Cooper lives here," said the grim old woman who answered our knock, "and she's at home, but she's in about as much trouble as any poor creature well can be and live. The wonder is how she has lived through it all; but what might you want with her?"
We said that we wanted to speak to her.
"And give her a tract, I suppose!" said the old woman contemptuously.
"We want to see her about this," said my companion, taking the petition from his pocket.
"Oh, that's another matter; I begs your pardon," answered the old dame, her tone becoming more civil. "She can stand by that; every word of it's gospel truth, for I got it wrote for her, and heard it read over, and it was about all I could do for her. I've never known much else than misery myself, and I've lived among it all my life, but such a dose of it as she has got now I don't think I ever did see before. Go up to her room, and you'll see such a picture there as I'll venture to say your eyes never rested on before."
And truly my eyes never had rested on such a sight. Since then they have rested on some scarcely less sad, but at the time I beheld it the scene in that room in Grass-Widows' Alley was the saddest I had ever looked upon. It was a picture that, if put on canvas, would have been [-142-] condemned as over-drawn, and attributed to a morbid imagination, and yet there it was before me in sad and stern reality. The wretched old room darkened by the apology for a blind, the splintered hearth-stone, the rusty, fireless, fenderless grate, the shaky, uneven, disjointed flooring, the dirt-engrimed walls, the ceiling smoke-blackened, and here and there fallen in, so that the rain soaked through; the bed of rags in a corner, and the one broken chair and rickety table that constituted the furniture! And oh the occupants of this so dismal apartment! On the solitary chair sat a man who, sound and well, would have been a fine able-bodied one, but who was now weak and wasted from hunger and disease. His left arm was in a sling, his right was thrown around the shoulders of a six-year boy, who was crying - for bread. On the opposite side of the fireplace from the father sat, on a rough block of wood, a patient-looking little girl of four, moaning from the pain of a badly-crushed foot, she having been run over by a hand-cart two days previously; and in the far corner of the room, heedless of our entry and all else, knelt the mother by the corpse of her youngest and prettiest child, an infant of barely two years. The dead face was the one happy-looking face in the room - the one thing of beauty amid all the wretchedness. It had been a beautiful little creature, regular-featured, blue-eyed, pure-complexioned, and, having only died in the small hours of this same morning, "Decay's effacing finger" had as yet set no unbeautifying mark upon it. It had died with a smile on its lips, [-143-] and the smiling expression was still there, the eyes were gently closed, and in that dim room the bright soft golden hair cast a glory round the brow. The frail little body was laid out on the top of an old deal box, which had been draped with clean white window curtains, lent, as I afterwards learned, by kindly neighbours; and it was arrayed for its long dreamless sleep in a beautifully-white night-dress, drawn in at the waist by a band of pink ribbon. So it lay; its presence sanctifying the squalid room. Reverentially I approached it, reverentially roused the mother from the stupor of grief into which she had fallen, and tried to comfort her. She was a young woman, and had been good-looking; but now her eyes were sunken and lack-lustre, her cheeks pale and hollow, and her whole expression haggard and hunger-pinched.
"Be calm!" she exclaimed passionately, in reply to something my friend had said to her, "don't you think I'd be something more than human if I could be calm, placed as I am? There's my husband, poor fellow, been out of work this seven months, with a diseased elbow. I'm expecting every day to be a mother again; you can see my one child lamed and requiring nursing, and hear my other crying from hunger; and there is my little Rose, that I think I loved better than them all-God forgive me, if it was a sin! - lying dead, and more through our hard living than anything else. Be calm, sir! I wonder I'm not mad altogether."
"Would not the parish authorities help you in your trouble?" I asked.
[-144-] "They offered to take us all into the workhouse," she answered, in a tone of bitterness; "and though I'm perhaps wronging them in saying so, I believe they made that their only offer because they could see we were of the sort that would rather starve than go into a workhouse; - and we have starved and are starving. I am only nine-and-twenty; my husband is only three years older, and till this misfortune of the accident to his arm fell on us, we were decent independent people in our poor way, for he was only a day-labourer, and unfortunately for us he was not in any club. Of course, we had to part with what we had bit by bit to get bread, and we moved into this place for cheapness, and what you see and these is what our home has been brought down to!"
"These" were a handful of pawn tickets that she took from a cupboard as she spoke.
"With pawning and selling," she went on, "and what I could bring in by washing and charing, we managed to scrape on till five weeks ago, by which time my little Rose was so ill as to require constant nursing, and then we did have the parish doctor, and parish medicine and nourishment, and now we are offered a parish coffin for her."
So far she had been comparatively self-possessed, but at this point she gave way to a wild burst of grief. Throwing back her hair and raising her voice, she continued:
"But she sha'n't be buried in it! Look at her, pretty [-145-] little angel. Her last nest, at any rate, shall be a decent one, if I beg the money on my knees by farthings."
As she finished she threw herself on her knees beside the dead child, and with her head lying close to its hand, sobbed hysterically.
Seeing her thus, the husband for the first time came forward, and laying his hand caressingly upon her shoulder, said-
"Don't take on so, Liza. I know you loved her dearly, and so did I; but at the same time, lass, remember that she has gone to a better place, and been took from a hard, hard world."
"I know she's better off, and that it's selfish of me to fret," she moaned, without raising her head; "but I can't help it, Jim; it tears my heart altogether; and to think how she suffered!"
"Try to bear up, lass," he said, in the same soothing tone; "my arm is on the mend now, and, please God, we may see better days again. Oh, sirs," he went on, turning to us, but still keeping his hand on his wife's shoulder, "it's a dreadful thing for a man to be chained, as you may say, and see his wife and children starving, and what is worse being a burden upon them. If either of you could only get me anything to do for a while that a man might do with one arm, I'd be thankful. None but God and ourselves know how hard my wife here has fought against the workhouse, how hard we have all lived to keep out of it; but I'm afraid we shall have to go, after all, if we can't get some little help to tide us over [-146-] the next few weeks. You may think it a poor way for a man to talk, but being placed as you see me here brings down pride, gentlemen. I'd do anything, however humble and however poorly paid, and be gladder than I can say to get it."
There was no whining in his tone, and there could be no doubt of his sincerity. The passionate grief of the woman, touching though it was, was not more distressing to witness than the tearless agony of the man's face.
The latter indeed seemed to have the more powerful effect upon my companion, for whispering to me, "I can stand no more of this ;" and assuring them that he would see something was done, he led the way from the room. Neither of us was in humour for talking, and we had got quite clear of the Alley, when my friend, drawing a long breath, exclaimed-
"Well, I shall never forget that sight the longest day I live. If I had stayed another minute, I must either have cried or choked. I can't tell you how much it has upset me, and yet I'm very glad I went. I thought on first reading the paper it was an imposture, and if - as I once thought of doing - I had taken no notice of it, and found, when it was too late to do anything, that it was really true, the thought of it would have haunted me."
"It was a case," I observed, "that showed, even more than the discovery of an imposture would have done, the advantages of personal investigation in such matters."
No more was said, but I trust it is scarcely necessary to add that something was done. Care was taken that [-147-] the, at any rate, excusable wish of the poor mother was gratified - that the "last nest" of her dead favourite was a decent one; and help in the form most acceptable to people of their spirit was found to tide them over their time of trouble. A light employment was procured for the husband until such time as his arm was well, and he, his wife, and remaining children restored to health and strength. It is pleasant to be able to relate that within a year the family were, thanks to their own perseverance able to leave Grass-Widows' Alley. In a less poverty-stricken neighbourhood, they once more set up a comfortable little home, and lived happily, as they had done before their misfortune had brought them into the straits in which we had found them; though with a chastened happiness - the memory of that dark time of trouble being always with them.
Such was my first introduction to Grass-Widows' Alley, and much of my after-experience in it was also associated with death and misery-necessarily so, for they were the chief characteristics of the place, and it was curious, as well as sad, to note how calmly familiar with them were the inhabitants. While they struggled so desperately to live, many of them yet looked forward to death as a friend. I remember once speaking with one of the seamstresses of the Alley. She was a "deserted woman" with two children. She worked at the slop shirt-making, and with the aid of her eldest child, a girl of ten. could by working sixteen hours a day earn about nine shillings a week. Her other child, a boy of eight, by hawking [-148-] hearthstone, brought in from a shilling to eighteen- pence per week, and this was the total income of the family when in full work, and very often they were not in full work. Their way of life was in consequence very miserable, and I was condoling with the mother upon such being the case, when, with a long-drawn sigh of relief, she exclaimed-
"Ah, well, sir, there's one consolation - there's no work in the grave! Thank heaven for that! There, at last, we will be able to fold our hands, and rest, rest, rest! No shirts to make there for three-ha'pence each, and no sweaters' to dock your pay on a Saturday night for pretended faults in the work; and we won't feel hunger, or cold, or pain there - our long home is the best, after all; I often sigh for it."
She did not speak bitterly or ironically, but in an unaffected spirit of thankfulness and satisfaction. Others in the Alley have I heard in the same spirit express the same longing for the last folding of the hands to sleep. It was wonderful to hear not only with what resignation, but with what a matter-of-fact air the inhabitants generally would, as winter was approaching, speak of a severe or dear season "thinning them off," and in severe years many of them did succumb, and most of them endured terrible privations. The winter with its cold wet days and long dark nights was on many grounds their most trying time. The inclement weather sadly curtailed the earnings of their out-door occupations; while the seamstresses and others following in-door employments could [-149-] not work so well by candle or lamplight as they could by daylight - and then there was the question of the expense of light and firing. The latter was the great winter question of the Alley. Coals in anything like sufficient quantity were beyond the reach of the general run of the inhabitants. In the bitterest cold of notably severe seasons I have seen family after family shivering about in utterly fireless rooms, or almost fighting for a share of the scanty warmth of such a fire as could be got up out of a few sticks and cinders gathered from dust-heaps by the children. More than once I have seen a family that had been fortunate enough to get a charitable gift of meat unable to cook it for want of a fire, and compelled to barter part of it with some one who had a little fire - who had perhaps been so lucky as to secure the gift of a coal ticket. Relief tickets were the best hope of those in the Alley at these seasons, the greatest, almost their only chance of obtaining "seasonable" food or warmth. The terrible eagerness of look and tone with which they entreated any one even suspected of being entrusted with the distribution of the bounty of charitable associations or individuals was a sad sight to witness. That some of them were but little deserving there was no doubt, but there was equally little doubt that in the majority of instances they were in want, were hungry, cold, and without means, and often - at least, such was my experience - it was scarcely less hard not to be able to give than it must have been not to be able to get the urgently-begged-for ticket - the ticket for which the hag-[-150-]gard, hunger-hollowed, cold-mottled face, as well as the eagerly anxious voice, pleaded "trumpet-tongued."
As regarded individuals, and individual families, there were occasional gleams of sunlight amid the darkness of Grass-Widows' Alley. From time to time truant husbands would unexpectedly return to their wives and children, bringing money with them. In some instances such occurrence would simply result in a "spree" - a few days' carousal and wild extravagance, followed by a fresh disappearance upon the part of the husband, a fresh sinking into poverty and want upon the part of the family. In most cases, however, "the return of the wanderer" meant other and better things - meant to a greater or less extent the redemption of the family from poverty. Sundry rather dramatic stories were current in the Alley, of men turning up "just in the nick of time;" just at a time, that was, when absolute starvation was staring their families in the face. There were other stories of men who had not turned up in the nick of time, who had not come back until it was too late for their return to undo or amend the mischief their desertion had wrought; until wives or children were dead or had "gone wrong." Again there were brighter and more romantic stories - mostly relating to the Australian and Californian gold-fever periods - of men who had returned greatly enriched and had at once and for ever removed their families from the Alley, to comfortable and even luxurious homes, in which - figuratively speaking - they fared sumptuously every day, and were clad in purple. And in this con-[-151-]nection it is a pleasing thing to be able to relate that, in some instances at any rate, the fortunate families did not, in the days of their unexpected prosperity, forget old neighbours and fellow-sufferers in the Alley; but, on the contrary, rendered them kindly and substantial assistance, so that the rising of one family out of the slough of despond was sometimes incidentally the means of rescuing another.
But such brighter bits of life were the rare exceptions in the Alley. Woe! woe! woe I was the rule, and of course there were occasionally cases in which the lighter and darker phases of the life of the place were strangely mingled. A picture of one such case there dwells on my mind with a vividness second only to that of the picture of that first scene in the Alley, of which I have already spoken. Generally speaking, the residents in the Alley "neighboured freely, but any who were so minded could "keep themselves to themselves as closely as they wished without danger of interference or curious prying upon the part of others. Among those who did elect to keep themselves secluded was a young woman, who, as events showed, had only come into the Alley to die in it, and it was in connection with her death that this second mind-picture was imprinted upon my memory. She took a room for herself and her child, a pretty little girl of four years. It was noticed that she looked woefully ill, was very scantily clad, and had no furniture. When at home she shut herself in her room, speaking with no one, and when she went out she communicated [-152-] to no one where she was going or on what errands she was bent. Finding that her desire was to be left alone, the other inmates of the house, with one exception, ceased to take any notice of her after the first day or two. The exception was an old woman who earned a precarious livelihood by keeping a small fruit-stall. Seeing that the young woman got to look worse every day, and arguing from what she saw of her circumstances and movements, that she was slowly dying of hunger, the old woman became extremely anxious about her, and anxiety making her bold, she entered the other's room, and forcing her into conversation after a deal of persuasion induced her to apply to the parish authorities for help. On doing so she was supplied with food - but it was too late. A few hours afterwards her illness assumed an alarming character, the parish doctor was brought in, and on seeing her he at once ordered her to be removed to the workhouse infirmary; but before the removal could be made the flickering life had passed away. It was immediately after her death that I saw her, not knowing that all was over until I reached the house. The apartment was literally without furniture, and was otherwise wretched and cheerless. But to her it mattered not now, her fight was over, and there was a look of rest on the wasted face, that had as yet scarcely become rigid. She was stretched on a pile of shavings that had served her as a bed, and was covered with some old dresses; and so she lay, one of the unknown dead, for none could say who she was, and she had died and made no sign on the [-153-] point. So far as she was concerned there was nothing for me to do, and as I had no doubt that the parish would take charge of the child, I did not see that I could do anything for it either; and yet, though I scarcely knew why, I asked to see it. I was informed that I would find her in old Sarah's room - old Sarah being the fruit-stall keeper mentioned above. On ascending to her apartment I saw the little girl playing about it, seemingly unconscious of any loss. Thinking that I would be better able than those around her to explain to her childish intellect what had happened, I began talking to her. In reply to my first question she told me that her name was Milly; and after a little while I gently asked her- "Do you know where your mother is, Milly?""Don to heaven!" she answered promptly, and in a tone and with a look that showed that in her own childish way she had realised that heaven was such a place that to have gone to it was a grand thing.
Old Sarah herself was seated in a corner of the room quietly regarding us, and on my looking up at her, with a pleasant astonishment, she observed- "That's what I've told her, sir, and have been trying to make her understand. I thought it was the best thing, and I hope it's true; and if it is, death will have been a happy release for her, poor thing. When I found no one fitter came, I prayed for her myself as well as I could, and I think she understood, and bent her own mind to asking God to take her; though she was past speaking [-154-] there was a happier look on her face as she passed away than I ever saw on it in life.
"I was truly rejoiced to find," I said, "that there had been a praying Christian with her in her dying moments;" and I added "that I was afraid there were but very few in the Alley who could have prayed with her.
"I don't want to take any credit, sir," answered the old woman, with unaffected sincerity. "I'm sorry to think that I'm not as prayerful as I know I ought to be. It's not that I'm better than my neighbours, but I've had better opportunities than most of them. I haven't always been in such places as this. I was comfortably brought up, and was taught to remember my Creator in the days of my youth. As a child my head was never laid on my pillow until I had said my prayers at my mother's knee; while many a poor thing living in the Alley here has never been taught a prayer, perhaps hardly ever heard one. But under all their roughness they are very kind to each other. A woman that has been in prison half-a-dozen times for being drunk and disorderly nursed me through a fever like a sister, just because she saw I was alone, and because she remembered that I had once begged of the policeman to be gentle with her, while every one around was laughing at the way in which he was pulling her about. There's plenty would have shared their own last crust with the poor creature lying dead up-stairs there, if they had only known how bad off she was, and I don't suppose there was one in the house but that had the heart to have [-155-] prayed for her when they saw her dying, if they had only known how.
Knowing what I did of the kindness of the poor to the poor, and the notions which many of even the most ignorant of them had of the necessity for and importance of death-bed prayer, I could quite believe what the old woman said, and with a brief remark to that effect, I left the house thinking sadly of the young mother lying dead in that miserable garret, and hoping that she had indeed "don to heaven," and that the fate of the child now left alone in the world might be happier than hers. Two days later she was laid in an unmarked pauper's grave, no mourner by, the name in which she was buried, and by which she had been known in the Alley, presumably an assumed one. The child was removed to the workhouse; but happily not to stay there long. With the closing of the grave over the mother the darkness of the picture faded away, the brighter touches, the silver lining of the cloud began to show-the poor mother seeming to be destined to serve her child better in her death than she had been able to do in her life. Though there had been no inquest, an account of the case got into a local paper, and with a most pleasing result. In consequence of reading this account, a lady and gentleman applied to the relieving officer to see the child, and finding her a very pretty and lovable one, explained that they were a childless couple, and would be willing to adopt her as their own. It was arranged that they should do so, and she was taken to their home in such a manner that none [-156-] but the few necessarily in the secret knew from whence she had come, or what had been her previous history, so far as it was known, nor on reaching years of understanding was she herself enlightened on the point. Had she met one of the gutter children of Grass-Widows' Alley she would probably have shrunk from it in fear, little dreaming that it was but a picture of what she might have been.
Such as I have attempted to describe it, was Grass-Widows' Alley; such life in it, such death in it. When I consider what manner of place it was, the saddest feature of it has yet to be named - to wit, that it is a typical neighbourhood. Such places are to be found by the score in the metropolis alone, and the thought that it is so, may surely make us humble, thankful, and charitable.