Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 5 - "Mitey"

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[-63-]

V.

"MITEY."

Is those parts of the great metropolitan cemeteries in which the poor are laid to rest, when their life's hard battle with poverty is over, there are no "storied urns or animated busts" to tell who sleeps below, or to help to make the place of burial in any degree a show-place. These parts generally lie well back from the trim walks, and, viewed from a distance, and by contrast with the "first-class ground" with its bravery of monumental masonry and gilded inscription, they present a somewhat desolate and neglected appearance. But a nearer inspection will show that the poor are not careless or neglectful of their dead.
    The close-lying coffin-shaped mounds of earth which mark the sites of the graves have many of them flowers or evergreen shrubs planted upon them; some have been more or less successfully turfed ; while others have been set out with initials or emblems traced in pebbles or shells. Simple memorials certainly, but the  work of loving hands and tributes of loving hearts. One such grave in the cemetery of my district attracts somewhat special attention, by reason of the fact that in addition to being thickly set with sweet williams and other old-fashioned flowers, it is marked by a home-made [-64-] slab-wood head-board. On this is carved in rude capitals the word " Mitev,~" and under that is written in rough uneven lettering the text, "Is it well with the child ? It is well."
    This was not the work of any one akin to the child whose grave it marked. Her short life's history was so far singular that it afforded a strongly contrasted experience - an experience on the one hand of individual brutality where love should have been, and, on the other hand, of that practical self-sacrificing kindness of the poor to the poor, which never fails even among those who are themselves suffering the direst pinch of poverty.
    On entering one of the poorest streets of my district one morning, I could see that the women were up in arms. They were talking together in groups ; and, going up to the first of these, I inquired the cause of the commotion.
    "Why," answered one of the women, "that brute Birch has took himself off and deserted that poor little mite of a girl of his - a child only eight years old, and a gentle little mortal as you'd a' thought any father would have been fond of and cared for. They say he broke his wife's heart, and it is certain he has pretty well broken the heart of the child, young as she is. It wasn't so much his beating her, though he did that cruel at times when he happened to be in drink or out of temper, it was the way he more than half-starved her, and never had a kind word for her, and let her see - for even a child of eight can see that sort of thing fast enough - that he would be glad to be rid of her."
    "Where is the child?" I asked.
    [-65-] "With old Mrs. James," the woman answered. "Birch lodged with her, and he has not only left the little girl on her hands, but gone away owing her eight weeks' rent. That was what sent him off, she was pressing him to pay up. You see it was not a case of couldn't pay, but wouldn't. Though through his own fault he hadn't regular work, he spent a good deal more in drink every week than would have paid his rent."
    I knew the old Mrs. James referred to she was sixty years of age, and her husband, who was considerably older, was a permanent invalid, and on that account they were allowed 2s. 6d. a week by the parish. The wife worked at the shirt trade when she could get work to do in competition with younger hands; but her earnings were very small, as her eyesight was failing her. The old couple had a son thirty years of age living with them, a steady, sober fellow, who shared his earnings with his parents when he was in work. But he was only a cas'alty labourer, poorly paid when in work, and often out of employment, as I happened to know was the case with him at this particular juncture. They were a quiet, self-respecting family, not given to "making a song" about their poverty, and often having to live for days or even weeks at a stretch upon a cup of weak tea and a crust of bread twice a day. Remembering all this, I remarked in the woman with whom I had been speaking - 
    "Well, Mrs. James can't keep the child, but if the father is the heartless scoundrel you describe him as being, he has done the little girl a service by deserting her. She will be better cared for in the Union schools than she has probably ever been before."
    [-66-] "That is right enough," said the woman "if it was only a question of her going to the Union, we wouldn't be putting ourselves out of the way ; we would all say, 'And a good job too.' But, more's the pity, it is a question of her being sent back to her beautiful father. Though he has run away from Mrs. James, he is hanging about the district. Directly the child was put on the parish the guardians would have him hunted up; he would have to pay for the expense they had been put to, and to take the child back, and as he couldn't take it out of any one else, he would take it out of her for his having been brought to book. I dare say he would be cunning enough to keep himself out of the clutches of the law, but all the same he would make her poor little life a misery to her. That is what is troubling the poor old lady. Many a slice of bread she has pinched herself of to give to the child, and many a beating she has saved her from. She is very fond of the child, and the little girl is as fond of her granny, as she calls her, though she is no relation, as a child can be. All her cry now, poor little thing, is, 'Don't send me to father, granny; I'm afraid to go to him. Do let me stay with you, and I'll be such a good girl, and eat hardly anything, and I'll try to work for you.' And the old woman turns away with the tears in her eyes, and can't answer her. Of course she would be only too glad to keep her if she had the means, and the father would be only too pleased that she should, for he looks upon the child as a burden. But there, when you are as poor as the likes of us you can't do as your heart would wish. I suppose the end of it will he the poor little mite will have to go to the brute."
    [-67-] "Let us hope not," I said, and passed on to call upon Mrs. James, for I had become painfully interested in what I had been told. The old lady answered the door herself, and clinging to her apron was a little girl, a gentle fragile little creature, with regular, clear-cut features, and looking perhaps even paler than she was by reason of her raven-black hair and great dark beseeching eyes.
    "This is the man Birch's child," I said; and even as I mentioned the name an expression of mingled terror and entreaty came over the child's face, as, burying her head in the folds of the old woman's dress, she sobbed - 
    "Oh, don't send me to father, granny."
    "No, no, my dear," answered the old woman soothingly, and then, catching my signal, she added, " Go indoors, this gentleman wants to speak to me." The little one turned at once obediently but reluctantly, casting an appealing look behind her as she went, and murmuring once more -  
    "Don't send me to father."
    "She appears to be dreadfully afraid of her father," I remarked when she was out of hearing. "Is he such a very bad man?"
    "His pothouse companions would tell you," answered Mrs. James, " that he was a jolly good fellow, but for all that he really is a bad, cruel man. The child has good reason to be in terror at the idea of being handed over to him with no one to stand between them. Her case was bad enough here, though we all did what we could to protect her. The father not only never had a kind thought or a kind word for her, he kicked and [-68-] struck and starved her. Many an evening I have known him to come home and gorge himself on the best, and not give her a scrap, though, so far as he knew she had not broken her fast all day."
    "I can understand your feeling in the matter," I said. "But what do you purpose doing?"
    "I hardly know," she answered. "I love the little thing, and will be sorry to part with her; but my wish is to act for her good. Do you think the guardians would take her without following up the father?"
    "I am afraid not," I replied; "it is their duty to take proceedings against parents who desert their children."
    "I know," she said, "and I suppose it is right that it should be so; but it is often hard on the children, as it would be in this case. Anything would be better for her than that she should be forced back upon her father. I am quite willing to give her shelter and a share of our crust, though she really needs better food; and I don't see how I could find her in clothes."
    "I might be able to get you assistance in the matter of clothing," I said.
    "I shall be very glad if you can," she answered, "since for the present I can see nothing better for her than to keep her here. It would be a lesser evil than bringing the authorities down upon the father would be."
    I was about to say that, under all the circumstances of the case, I thought so too, but at that moment Mrs. James's son, who had been looking out for work, came back. He was a large-framed man, and naturally of a jovial cast of countenance, but at this time he had the gaunt, white-faced, hunger-pinched look that marks the [-69-] genuine labourer who has had a lung spell out of employment. Nevertheless he came up smiling, and the mother, evidently reading good news in his face, exclaimed, "What, luck at last, Jim?"
    "Yes, mother," he answered; "and just in the nick of time, ain't it ? Got work to start tomorrow morning; it is for a month certain, and may turn out a permanent job."
    The child had heard his voice, and came to the door again, the same expression of dread upon her face, the same piteous appeal upon her lips, "You won't send me to father, will you, Uncle Jim?"
    "No, my pretty," he answered cheerily; " you shan't be sent to any one that don't want you, not while I am able to work and can get work to do."
    Then, for the first time, I saw a smile on the face of the child, as she took the labourer's great hand between her tiny palms, and glanced up in his face with a look of love and gratitude that must have amply repaid so kindhearted a fellow as Uncle Jim evidently was.
    This proved to be a turning-point in the career of Mitey, as from that time the child came to be generally called in the street, the name being abbreviated from "poor little mite" and "poor little mitey," the pitying expressions that had previously been applied to her. If she had really been of their own flesh and blood, granny and Uncle Jim could not have dealt more kindly or self-sacrificingly with her, nor could the child have entertained a warmer affection for them. Their good deed seemed to bring a blessing with it. Uncle Jim's job did turn out to be a permanent one. Even so the [-70-] task of making ends meet was a "tight fit," as his wages were only 17s. a week, but "Mitey" was always the first person considered, and lacked no material comfort.
    The whole burden of the good work was not, however, permitted to fall upon the Jameses. Assistance was forthcoming in the matter of clothing the child, and a number of the women in the street would insist upon having "a finger in the pie." Some of them who, as washerwomen and charwomen, came in for occasional gifts of broken victuals, would always reserve a portion of any choice viands among the gifts for "Mitev." In the same way, if any special stroke of good fortune had befallen a family, and they were living on festival lines for a day or two, a share of the good things would be sent to "Mitev;" and in other ways substantial evidence of neighbourly good-will for the child was shown.
    Under this condition of things "Mitey" was very happy; but her original delicacy of constitution and the hardships she had been subjected to in the bygone times had told their tale. It was palpable that she grew steadily weaker; and after a time the women began to whisper pityingly, and with bated breath, "Poor little Mitey is not long for this world." Nor was she. As the pretty little face waxed thinner and whiter the great dark eyes appeared to grow larger, and became possessed of a dreamy far-away look that seemed to tell of "another world than ours."
    It was in the summer that I had first seen her; as the cold weather set in she was confined to her bed a good deal, and it was at that time I saw most of her. Though she had been but seven years of age when left motherless, it [-71-] was evident from her childish prattle that the mother had made a confidant of her when the father had been out of the way. She had told her too, in a fashion suitable to a childish mind, of the Better Land, where sin and sorrow and suffering are unknown, where those who have sorrowfully parted here shall joyfully meet to part no more, and where the only Father is the heavenly one, who is Love.
    There had been no attempt to teach the child anything in the shape of technical theology or the niceties of creeds, but her faith was perfect, simple, clear, unquestioning, sufficing, and touching to witness. "Mother is waiting for me at the golden gates," she would sometimes say; "she told me she would, and I see her when I am asleep." "I am so tired," she would wearily remark at other times, " so very tired here, but when the Lord Jesus takes me I shall ask Him to let me rest on His breast, and He will, and I shall never be tired again. Then I shall see the angels and mother with them, and I shall be with them too, and I shall watch and wait for granny and Uncle Jim as mother has for me, and when the Lord Jesus brings them we shall all be together for ever and ever; and we shall be so happy, oh! so happy, I can't tell you."
    Some days she did not care for conversational talk, but would lie with half-shut eyes softly repeating to herself, "Gentle Jesus," or singing, as well as her weakened voice would permit, "I'd like to be an angel." She suffered little; simply and almost imperceptibly faded away.
    On going into the street one afternoon, after having been absent from it for three or four days, I noticed the [-72-] blinds drawn in a number of the houses, and concluded that little "Mitey" had received her call. Such was indeed the case. "Yes, she is dead," answered old Mrs. James when I asked the question; "she was almost au angel before - she is quite one now."
    And there really was an angelic look upon the little dead face. The wearied longing expression had gone, the eyes with their far-off gaze were softly closed, the lips were gently and smilingly parted and with her hands meekly crossed upon her breast, she looked unutterably calm and restful.
    When the question of her burial came to be discussed, it was suggested that now the parish authorities should be called in, as their "coming down" on the father could no longer harm the child. But "Uncle Jim" would not listen to this proposal. " No," he said emphatically ; "it doesn't matter much, perhaps, but Mitey didn't trouble the parish in life, so she shall not in death. She shall not be buried as a pauper, if I have to live on one meal a day for the rest of my life to pay for her funeral myself." When his determination became known, however, he was not allowed to bear all the expense himself. A subscription in aid was organised in the street. Sixpence was the highest sum given by any one subscriber, while in a number of instances the sum was only a penny. But even the latter sum was a material amount in proportion to the means of the donors, and there was not a coin given that did not represent a heart's true charity. Nor was there one of the score or more of granny's neighbours who with bowed heads and reverent air, stood round the [-73-] open grave as "Mitey" was lowered to her last earthly resting-place, but was a true mourner. And they (with. of course, granny and Uncle Jim) were the only mourners there.
    During the period of the child's illness some of the men of the street occasionally "ran against" the father, and acquainted him with the fact of the illness. He was likewise informed of the death of his little daughter, but he never came to inquire after the child or sought to attend her funeral. He still cumbers the earth, but, hardened ruffian as he is, he shrinks from the sight and slinks from the path of any of those who knew his child and her history. By thus keeping out of sight he will pass out of mind; and it is well that it should be so, for he was the one jarring chord in the story of Mitey's life and death.
    But the child is not forgotten. Her grave and her memory are alike kept green. It need scarcely be said that it was Uncle Jim who put the head-board to her grave. "I knew," he said, speaking on this point, "that there would be others who had known her beside mother and me, others who had little ones of their own laid to rest in the same cemetery, who would like sometimes to look upon 'Mitey's' grave. For that reason I said to myself the grave should be marked, so I put the cross upon it, with just the one word Mitey on it, in the first place. Looking at it so, however, it struck me as showing bare. It ought to have a verse on it, I thought and, having no head for that sort of thing, I went to a printer's who did mourning-cards, and to a monumental mason. They both showed me lots of verses, but they [-74-] all, somehow, seemed to me too grand and flowery for our little maid. Then I spoke to an old fellow-workman, who is a great chapel-goer and does a bit of open-air preaching. and says he to me - I remember his very words - 'No need to go to printers or masons; go to the Book. Go to your Bible, my boy. Search the Scriptures, and in them you will find not only everlasting life, but words of wisdom meet to every circumstance of life or death. I have had my partings here below, my occasions for meditations among the tombs, and one of the things I noticed was, that of all the memorial verses the plain Biblical ones were the best, spoke most of comfort and consolation.' Bearing in mind what my mate had said, when I went to the cemetery the following Sunday I took a turn about the first-class ground, looking out for inscriptions taken from the Bible, and I saw the one I took on a swell tombstone. I thought to myself, if it is well with any child, it is well with 'Mitey,' and so I placed it over her.
    And not only to Uncle Jim, but to others who knew her, and, despite of their own bitter poverty, were kind to her, the remembrance of "Mitey" is an influence for good.

source: [Thomas Wright], The Pinch of Poverty, 1892