Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 4 - Mrs. Bundlewood

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THE question is often asked, Has any one ever seen a dead donkey? The sight is perhaps a rare one, but I have seen it, and under circumstances that are perhaps worth narrating. One morning, when passing along a main road running through an outlying part of my district, I noticed a crowd ahead of me. As I drew near I could hear sounds of singing, and concluded that the gathering had been drawn together by some ballad-monger of the streets; but coming closer, I saw and heard that the singing was being done not by any professional street minstrel, but by a band of young fellows of the cas'alty labourer type, belonging to the neighbourhood, who were capering about and "giving mouth" to a stave from a popular parody upon "Old Dog Tray," which ran- 
        "My old Don-key is ever faithful,
        Grief cannot drive him away
        In spite of kicks and cuffs,
        When he's dead I'll have him stuff'd
        No one shall have my old Don-key."
    There was perhaps a touch of rude wit in the application of the doggerel, for the "sight" that was the centre of attraction to the singers and the other lookers-on was that of a woman seated on a kerbstone, crying over the [-52-] body of a donkey that "lay dead in its harness" in the roadway.
    The spectators appeared to regard the scene as wholly comic, and had there been any affectation about the woman's grief there would have been a bathos about the situation that might have justified one in taking a humorous view of it. But the grief was unmistakably genuine, and the spectacle, though woefully unpicturesque, struck me as thoroughly pathetic. The weeping woman might have been taken for any age between forty and fifty. Her features were regular and clear-cut, and no doubt in her youth she had been of comely appearance. But "decay's effacing fingers" make rapid havoc with physical beauty among the poor. As she sat there on the pavement, so absorbed in her own grief as to be heedless of the thoughtless bantering of those around her, the woman looked prematurely old and haggard. She was evidently a "daughter of toil" in some of its severer forms. Her hands, which lay in her lap, were large, and as hard and hacked and "grimed" as those of any dock labourer, and she looked care-worn as ~vell as toil-worn. She was wretchedly clad too; her bonnet battered and shapeless, her dress tattered and road-splashed, and her feet encased in an old and much mud-encrusted pair of men's boots. As to the donkey, so far as could be judged at a glance, it was old and small, and had in life been underfed and overworked.
    For it death had probably been in the nature of " a happy release," but to the owner the loss was a serious one from a material point of view. Still it was not solely as an instrument of trade that she lamented it. Her [-53-] grief had in it some touch of feeling - it might almost be said of fellow-feeling for the dead animal. "He wasn't much to look at, and was a long way past his best for work," she murmured, laying her hand caressingly on its head, " but he was a willing little thing; he couldn't have showed more willing if he'd a known how much our bread depended on him. Goodness only knows what we shall do without him. There is that lot," she soliloquised, looking towards a small cart laden with firewood which stood a little way off, "there's that lot ought to have been delivered by this time. I expect I shall have it thrown on my hands, and if I do there will be nothing but the workhouse for us after all my struggles, for I shall be without stock-money then."
    Though she spoke simply out of the fulness of the heart, and not by way of making appeal to others, those around her were not unaffected, the more especially as the crowd, having had its little joke, was now getting into a sympathetic mood. At this point a stalwart young labourer who had been one of the principal performers in the singing stepped up to the woman, and patting her lightly on the shoulder, said in a cheery tone- 
    "Never mind, old gal, keep your heart up. This is a knock-down blow for you, there's no denying still you mustn't give in; there's fight left in you yet, I know. You've pulled through many a bad bit, and you'll pull through this somehow. When things get to the worst they mend, you know."
    "They couldn't be much worse with me," she answered. 
    "Well, no," he admitted, but still putting on a cheery manner; "your fix is about as bad as they make them, [-54-] but then that is just what I say; things are so bad with you that they are bound to mend."
    " I must hope so, any way," she said, rising and drying her eyes as she spoke ; "I dare say I did look foolish, but I couldn't help crying."
    "And we couldn't help laughing a bit at first, but you mustn't mind that ; it wasn't that we didn't feel for you."
    I knew this young fellow by sight and name, and going up to him as he stepped back, I asked in an undertone, " How did this happen, Daley ?"
    "It happened," he answered, "as accidents to men, let alone to donkeys, very often do happen - through a bit of rough-and-tumble larking. It was this way: the poor little moke could hardly move the cart up the steep on the other side of the bridge there, and seeing that, three or four lumping fellows who were coming along put their shoulders to and pushed up behind. Of course, that was all right up to the top ; but, having more strength than sense, they didn't know when to leave well alone. By way of a lark they kept on pushing down the steep on the other side, and as the donkey was not strong enough to hold back against them or to go at a gallop, he was overrun and went down all of a heap, with the cart a-top of him. Me and my mates got the cart off him, and tried to get him up, but he was stone dead. You see, he was pretty well worn out before, anyway."
    "Who were these men?" I asked.
    "I don't know that," answered Daley. " When they saw what they had done they stepped it in double-quick time. Not that it would have mattered much to the old gal if they had been stopped. You could see by their [-55-] cut that they were only labourers, and out of work at that. I don't suppose you would have shaken a shilling out of time lot of 'em if you had hung them up by the heels."
    This answer of Daley's having disposed of any hope that I had entertained of its being possible to obtain compensation for this poor woman, I turned to her and asked, "What do you purpose doing?"
    "I hardly know," she answered. "If I had the money - which I haven't - to hire another donkey or pony for the day, I don't know where I could get one at once, and time is the great thing with me, as my customer is out of stock. If I had any one to mind the cart while I was away, I would borrow a sack and carry him as many bundles as I could for him to be going on with."
    I was debating with myself whether or not I should volunteer to mount guard over the cart, when Daley, who it would appear had been consulting with his mates, came forward and asked, "Where is the load for?"
    In reply the woman named a street a mile and a half distant.
    "Oh, then that settles it,2 exclaimed Daley. "We can do that little bit, and think it play. We'll draw it for you. If four of us ain't more'n one donkey power it's a pity."
    "I can't pay you," the woman said quickly.
    "I wish for your own sake you could," he answered, smiling; "but we know you can't, and we don't want you to. We are out of work and hard up, it is true, and we shouldn't care to work for nothing in a general way; but we re not such a poor-hearted lot as not to be good to take on such a job as this free gratis ; so here goes."
    As he finished speaking, lie began to unbuckle the [-56-] harness from the dead donkey, and when he had loosed it placed it on top of the wood in the cart. Then, joining in the ripple of laughter among the bystanders, he put himself in the shafts, while three of his mates took their station behind, and, with the woman acting as guide, and amid the cheers of the now admiring crowd, they set off.
    "Who is she?" I asked a middle-aged man, who was walking in the same direction as myself when the crowd dispersed.
    "Mrs. Bundlewood," he answered; and be uttered the name with a chuckle that would have told, if the strangeness of the name had not, that it was a nickname.
    "That is not her proper name, of course?" I remarked. 
    "Well, no ; Mrs. G----- is her right name," he answered; "but she is mostly spoken of; and for the matter of that spoken to, as Mrs. Bundlewood. There is no offence meant and none taken. She is in the firewood trade on her own account, though in a very small way, as you may guess from her poverty-pinched look; and it is the pinch of poverty; mind you, that brings her to be as she is, for a more sober or more hard-working woman there could scarcely be. She doesn't just buy the bundles ready-made to sell again; that on a small scale is a worse business than even her's. She does the actual work, buys the wood in lengths, and chops it herself; she and her children between them do the bundling and tying, and she looks out the customers and delivers the goods. One way and another, she is hard at it almost day and night, and all for a bare crust and a bare shelter, and to be as von saw her. The little people haven't any chance now- a-days against the big yards with their steam machinery [-57-] and all the rest of it. Not only that, the little people have to sell at hardly any profit, because the shopkeepers know that it is a case of must with them. and they grind them down according."
    "It is a curious trade for a widow woman to have taken to," I observed.
    "She ain't a widow," said my informant promptly, "she's worse ; she has got a sick husband as well as her children and herself to support. And she didn't so much take to the trade as the trade take to her, as you may say. When she married her husband had a yard of his own, and had every prospect of doing well; but it wasn't to be. One day he fell from the top of a timber-stack, and coming down on his head injured his brain. Ever since that lie has been subject to fits, and not quite right in his mind. While he was ill she tried to carry on the yard, but what with trouble at home, and some of those she had to trust cheating her, the business slipped through her hands. By that time she had got into the groove of the trade. It was the only thing she had got at her finger-ends to keep her family by, and she has kept them by it for years - such a keep as it is. And now, poor thing, she will have a harder job than ever to keep the wolf from the door. So far she has always managed to keep a cart, now I expect she will have to take to a hand-barrow."
    This latter expectation was realised, for a fortnight later I met Mrs. G------ in the street drawing a hand-barrow filled with wood. "You have not got another donkey yet, I see," I said, going up to her.
    "No, I have had to give up the cart," she answered, putting down the barrow as if glad of an excuse for taking [-58-] a rest. " Still I don't know that I shah be any the worse off," she went on, smiling; "in fact, I shouldn't wonder if in the long run I came to be all the better off for what has happened, though it did seem a dreadful misfortune at the time. Things have turned out better than I could have expected; I find they very often do - I have great trust in that way; if I hadn't have had I would have never got through my trouble. I have gone in for a line of trade that the barrow will suit. I am working up a connection among the small general shops, for I find they don't object, as the larger shops would, to my doing a bit of private trade as well, so long as I don't sell less than a hundred bundles at a time to a private customer. You see the hundred-bundle customers don't interfere with the small general people. Theirs are mostly one-bundle customers, and often enough two of them will go shares at that. I have seen two such before now actually counting the sticks in a bundle so as to share fair. In fact, it's a saying with me that if you are poor and wish to be honest, you must count your sticks to make ends meet."
    " I am very pleased to see you hopeful," I said.
    "Well, I am hopeful," she answered, " and thankful too, as I consider I have reason to be, though there are those who would persuade me that I haven't. I have seen better days, and had more of the downs than the ups of life, but through all the Lord has been very good to me. He has always given me strength either to bear or overcome my trouble. I have found, as the hymn says, that 
        'Behind a frowning Providence
         He hides a smiling face.'
[-59-] So it has been with my last trouble. I'm doing less business than I used to do, but then the private trade is more profitable, and I have got a number of private customers already, and am in hopes of getting more."
    "I might be able to get you a few," I said. " I will try, any way; if I succeed, where shall I bring the orders to?"
    In reply she gave me her address, and expressed her thanks, and then taking up her barrow again, proceeded briskly upon her journey.
    By means of a little canvassing among personal friends I was, in the course of a few days, able to give Mrs. Bundlewood what was for her a considerable order, and in that and other connections I subsequently saw a good deal of her both at home and abroad.
    Her home, as might be expected, was a poor one. It was in one of a row of four-roomed houses in a "low" quarter of the district, and exhibited the cheerless, comfortless appearance generally characteristic of homes in which the woman has to play the part of breadwinner instead of that of housewife. One room of time house was let to a lodger, a second was supposed to be the workshop proper, though in practice the work had a habit of overflowing into the other two rooms, a circumstance which was the less noticeable by reason of the fact that the rooms were very scantily furnished in other respects.
    It was chiefly in the evening and early morning that Mrs. Bundlewood was to be found working indoors. After being out all day with her barrow she would come home, and having partaken of a more simple than nourishing tea-dinner, consisting of a cup of tea or coffee and a slice or two of bread and dripping, she would go [-60-] to her wood-chopping, and keep at it till far on in the night. The chopping is the heaviest part of the firewood work. The lighter operations of "piling," "bundling," and "tying" were performed by the three children of the family. While mother and children were working, the father would be, as I once heard it put by a neighbour of his, "buzzing about all over the shop," constantly getting in the way of the workers and retarding their progress, though evidently under the pleasing delusion that he was managing and directing the business, and that witihout his guidance and authority the "hands" would be altogether at a loss. Patient and long-suffering in this as in other matters, the wife good-naturedly humours him; and she has her reward, for at these times he is happy and self-satisfied.
    The life of this poor woman has been, and is, chiefly one of toiling and sorrowing, but its hardships have wrought no bitterness of spirit in her'. Her simple faith, that everything is ordered for the best, though we may not be able to see it, is a sustaining power to her; and it is in no pharisaical spirit that she finds comfort in the belief that we cannot all have our good things in this life. In winter's rain and mire, in summer's heat and dust, Mrs. Bundlewood may be seen trudging contentedly through the streets with her barrow, as unheroic-looking a figure as the passers-by are likely to set eyes upon. And yet the woman is a true heroine, one who would have an indisputable claim to rank among the decorated were there a Victoria Cross for valour in that dread and dreary battle of life - the battle with the pinch of poverty.