Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 8 - Nurse Nine

[ ... back to menu for this book]




IN nothing, perhaps, is the truth of the adage that where there is a will there is a way more strikingly or characteristically illustrated than in the matter of doing good to and among our fellow-creatures. With many of the unthinking or self-excusing it is a fixed idea that to do good to others in this world one must have power or position, and above all, riches. That these qualifications are important means to the end of well-doing in the connection here spoken of there can of course be no doubt, and to some forms of good work they may be indispensable. But speaking broadly, they are by no means absolutely necessary. Men and women lacking them all may, and can, and daily do, accomplish much in the way of relieving the needy, aiding the afflicted, comforting the sorrowing. Given that it be but of the true, the Christian type, and "charity never faileth". It is then a will, and a mighty one, and will never be found at a loss to discover a way wherein to fulfil itself. We do not read of the good Samaritan that he was a rich man; only that he was compassionate, and in the spirit of that charity which "vaunteth not itself" did a brother's part by the wounded and helpless stranger, from whom the priest and the Levite had turned away.
    No; there needs not rank or riches to fulfil the law of [-108-] charity. We can all of us, rich and poor alike, obey the command that constitutes the final moral of the parable of the good Samaritan, "Go thou and do likewise." Every class has its leavening of good Samaritanism, and, strange as the assertion will perhaps sound to some ears, I think it may be safely said that in this respect the poor are second to no other class. In my own district I have found many of the good Samaritan type among the poor; and of one of the most noteworthy of these, a woman popularly known among her neighbours as "Nurse Nine," I here propose to give some account.
    A widow, bedridden from the effects of disease and dependent upon a daughter of thirteen for the attendance which her condition necessitated, asked me one morning, rather to my surprise, if I could give the daughter a character to enable her to take a "morning" place which was open to her, subject to her being able to obtain a satisfactory reference. I was certainly in a position to comply with the request. I knew the daughter to be a very good little girl - one, too, sobered and made thoughtful by early trouble, and, having regard to her youth, but too thoroughly domesticated. But if the child was taken away from her, what was to become of the mother? was the thought that instantly arose in my mind, and I put the question to the mother.
    "That has been thought of, sir," she answered. "Of course I shall miss her, more perhaps than even you think. They say you can't put an old head on young shoulders, but there are some children - and my poor little Polly has been one - that trouble and trial and necessity does something very like it for. She would do [-109-] what she could for me before going out in the morning, and arrange for other things to stand over till evening. Besides, Nurse Nine, as we call her, has promised that she will never see me at a loss for a helping hand, and when she says a thing of that sort she means what she says."
    "Nurse Nine?" I said ponderingly, for I had a distinct impression of having heard the title before, though I was unable at the moment to recall under what circumstances or upon what occasions. " Nurse Nine - let me see, who is Nurse Nine?"
    A sense of gratitude had made the widow eloquent, not to say voluble, but, briefly put, her answer was to the effect that Nurse Nine was a woman to whom her neighbours were much indebted for neighbourly assistance in the matter of sick-nursing - a woman skilled as well as wilhing; one who had had experience, and who was moreover, endowed with the natural gifts that mark the born nurse - a kindly heart, a patient mind, a pleasant voice, a hand whose touch is at once firm and tender, and a general manner that makes confidence in it an instinct.
    "Why is she called Nurse Nine?" I asked when the widow had finished the description I have epitomised.
    "Well, in the hospital she was in the nurses used to be called by the numbers of their wards; and when she used to be telling us about things that happened when she was there, she would say the doctor said this, Nurse Nine, or a patient said that, Nurse Nine, and through that we got into the way of calling her the same."
    "I understand," I said; "but to come back now to [-110-] the business in hand. Seeing how much else she does in the way of neighbourly kindness, do you think she will have time to do what she promises for you ?"
    "I am afraid if it was me, sir," the widow answered candidly, " I should say I hadn't, and so would ninety-nine women out of a hundred, for she has got a child and a crippled husband as well as herself to work for. With her, though, it is a case of where there's a will there's a way. As she says herself, the Lord gives her strength. She won't 'neighbour' in a gossiping way, but she always manages to find time to do a good act, and she prospers none the less for it. In her way, and considering that she is dependent upon her own hands, she is comfortably off."
    "I am very pleased to hear that," I said; "though of course it does not follow," I added, " that the doing of good deeds is always attended with the particular blessing of worldly prosperity. But even if it makes poorer, as is sometimes the case, it has still its own high rewards - a satisfied conscience, and the happiness that is born of a fuller obedience of the laws to love our neighbour as ourselves, and do unto others as we would they should do unto us."
    "I can quite understand that, sir," said the widow, "and I suppose that is the real meaning of the saving that virtue is its own reward, though it is so often said sneeringly."
    "Just so," I said; "and now, before quite deciding in this matter about your little girl, I will call upon your friend Nurse Nine."
    Truth to tell, my own curiosity had something to do in [-111-] deciding me upon taking this step. What I had heard had made me strongly desirous of making the acquaintance of this practical Christian; and the feeling that I ought not to be a party to depriving the invalid mother of the services of her child without some inquiry, afforded a self-justifying reason for my proposed call.
    "I am sure she would be pleased to see you," said the widow, in reply to my suggestion. "She lives only a few doors down the street, and her right name is Mrs. H-----. She keeps a mangle ; you'll easily know the house by its neat window, and the 'Mangling done here' card in it."
    Going down the street I readily found the house by another indication, that, namely, of seeing a number of children skipping upon the pavement in front of it, and intoning a rhyme popularly applied - in my district, at any rate - to the professors of the "mangling" trade, and running -
        "Polly Bangle
            Turns the mangle,
                Hi, ho."
A rhyme this without reason, certainly, but one the chanting of which in some way amuses the children, and being used generally, and not as nicknaming an individual, does the manglers no harm.
    The well-whitened door-step, the well-polished knocker and handle, and the neatly curtained window, spoke favourably of Nurse Nine as a housewife, and having glanced at these signs of domestic character I knocked at the door. Thinking exclusively of the woman, I was rather taken aback for a moment when, on the door  [-112-] being opened, I was confronted not by a woman, but by a large-framed man, who had evidently dragged himself' forward with some difficulty, his lower limbs appearing to be all but useless, while his face and neck were much drawn and scarred from burning.
    He too seemed surprised at seeing a stranger, but he was the first to recover himself, and before I could speak called out, "Ann, a gentleman!"
    In answer there came from an inner room a middle-aged woman of neat spare figure, and with a face that it was easy to see had once been very pretty. Even now it was a comely enough face, though the lines of care were deeply graven in it, and there was a settled sadness in the great grey eyes. It was evident at a glance that she was one who had known sorrow and been acquainted with grief. But trouble and trial had not embittered her spirit nor hardened her heart. Her squarely cut chin, and the resolute little mouth with its thin lips rather tightly drawn, gave indications of the firmness and determination of character that had probably served her well in bearing affliction. But mingling with and over-coming the hardness of the lower part of' the countenance was a general expression of gentle kindliness, that seemed to beam from the clear honest eyes, which made the face wholly lovable - such a face as you could well imagine a poor neighbour being very thankful indeed to see by their bedside in time of sickness.
    It would appear that I had been known to her by sight, for with a welcoming smile of recognition she at once asked me to step in - the invitation being given in a voice that was how and sweet, and at the same time [-113-] steady and distinct, the voice, in short, of the born nurse. How important in regard to nursing is this matter of voice none who see much of sickness need to be told. The true nurse-voice is a thing of power, has a natural magic in it. It can, in some degree at any rate, even minister to a mind diseased - can soothe the restless brain and cheer the drooping heart, can give courage as well as command obedience. With this voice sounding in my ears, and the light of a large-hearted nature beaming upon me from the depths of her calm clear eyes, I felt for the moment as though I ought to have greeted her with Scott's much-hackneyed lines:-
        "When pain and anguish wring the brow,
          A ministering angel thou."
    I acted more sensibly, however, and opened conversation by informing her that I had come to consult with her upon the subject of Polly going to a morning place.
    "I thought so, sir," she said ; " her mother told me she would ask you to give her a recommendation." And then she proceeded to briefly but lucidly explain how, in her opinion, the thing could, and why in the interests of the girl it was well that it should, be done. Other neighbours as well as herself had undertaken to "give an eye" to the wants of the widow during the hours of her daughter's absence, and she had further undertaken to supply at the shortest notice, the place of' any who might unexpectedly fail to fulfil their part of the agreement. Already I was quite convinced that the widow had been fully justified in saying that when Nurse Nine said a thing of this kind she meant it; and satisfied on this head, I [-114-] gave the required recommendation without a moment's hesitation.
    Thus began my personal acquaintance with Nurse Nine - a real, though an unconscious and unknown heroine. Afterwards I often met her in sick-rooms and other places where works of neighbourly love and kindness and self-sacrifice required to be done.
    In course of time I came to gather, partly from herself, partly from others, the story of her life, which I here purpose to outline as an example of the ennobling and sustaining influence of religion upon character and conduct, alike in doing and suffering. She was born of labouring people, but still might be said to be of good family in a higher and happier sense of that phrase than the mere heraldic one. Her parents were actively religious people, were not content to show their religion only in a decently and honestly ordered every-day life. They prayed in secret, and taught their child so to pray, but it was also their wont to pray openly.
        "Pray with most, for where most pray is heaven."
    They were regular chapel-goers, associated chiefly with other chapel-goers of their own rank in life, and, in such fashion as their circumstances allowed, assisted in the work of their circle. Their daughter was, of course, sent regularly to Sunday as well as to day-school; and when she reached the age at which it became necessary for one in her position of life to "go out in the world," her first and only place of service was in the household of' a leading manager and teacher of her Sunday-school. here she was more than merely permitted to continue [-115-] in habits of public prayerfulness, and was still surrounded by religious influences, and in her case the seed fell upon fruitful ground. She became thoroughly imbued with the religious principle and feeling, and capable of finding in her religion as events were destined to prove, that strength, fortitude, and consolation under trouble which religion alone can give.
    While in service she made the acquaintance of a young artisan, a healthy, good-looking, steady young fellow, and a clever craftsman. The home of his childhood had afforded no example or inducement to a religions life. Respectable in his degree, and nominally a Christian, he had really grown up in a state of indifference, giving no thought to religion, and never entering a place of worship. When, however, it was made a condition of his becoming engaged to the girl that he should accompany her to chapel on Sundays, he readily consented, and faithfully carried out the agreement. After a reasonably long courtship the wedding. day was fixed, and the pair were made man and wife, with the good will and good wishes of all related to or interested in them. They had a comfortable little home of their own to start with, and seemed to have every prospect before them of a happy married life; but, alas! only seemed. There was a terrible worm in the bud.
    They had not been married a year when it became evident that her husband was "taking to drink" - was being drawn into the horrible maelstrom that, so to speak, swirls round every working man. Just prior to his marriage, and influenced chiefly by a sense of the responsibilities that [-116-] marriage brings, he had joined a benefit society. The objects of the society were in themselves most laudable, but unfortunately its business - as is the case with most such societies - was conducted in a public-house. Attendance at such a club means drinking. The use of the club-room is given on the understanding - tacit if not express - that the members of the club must drink "for the good of the house." Of course every man who takes a glass on this understanding does not inevitably, or of necessity, become a drunkard, but, at the same time, there can be no doubt that this club-room tippling has been the first step in the downward career of many a decent man. That it was so in her husband's case Nurse Nine always believed. However the evil thing began with him, certain it is that it made unusually rapid progress upon him.
    Before the second year of their married life had passed he was an habitual drunkard, and of the worst type too, for drunkenness developed, or let loose, in him a whole host of other evils, he became an idler and a time-loser, and as such was discharged from the employ of the firm in which he had served his apprenticeship, and from that time was oftener out of than in work, the result being that the task of maintaining the house-hold devolved in a large measure upon the wife. Remonstrance or appeal he met with coarse brutality; in short, he became a thoroughly bad husband. One of the first signs of his falling off had been his ceasing to accompany his wife to public worship. A little later he had sought to prevent her going herself; but on this point she was immovably resolute, resisting alike persuasion [-117-] and physical violence, to which on this occasion he, for time first time, resorted.
    Her religion was now to her as a rock, the one rock standing out from the sea of trouble on which she found herself adrift, and she clung to it with all her strength. Nor would she give up her habit of prayerfulness, or in any other way "sink" her religion. She was of true martyr mould, and under no pressure would abate one jot or tittle of what she considered due to her God or to her own soul. Her firmness of purpose in this matter wrought the wretched husband to an almost demoniac state of rage and hatred, and led him to torture his wife through the feelings he could not conquer in her. He would make her shudder by pouring out torrents of blasphemy in her hearing, while upon one occasion, with an ingenuity in evil truly fiend-like, he destroyed her well-used Bible - a Bible that was precious to her not only for its own sake, but also for that it had been a gift from one of her Sunday-school teachers then gone to her rest. Surprising her reading it, he snatched the sacred volume from her, and, thrusting it into the fire burned it before her eyes, holding her forcibly back, as, at all hazard of injury to herself, she would have rushed forward to snatch it from the flames.
    On this dark period of her life's history I will not dwell with further detail. It lasted through six long weary years, during which she bore her troubles as bravely and resignedly as might be, looking on high for strength to support her under them, and regarding them as the cross which Providence, moving in its own mysterious way, had assigned to her. Had she alone been [-118-] concerned, she would probably have continued to bear with her husband's evil ways, but the time came when she could no longer consider herself alone.
    When she had been married a year a child had been born to her - a little girl. The child became a pretty, intelligent little thing, and at five years of age was beginning to show herself capable of receiving both mental and immoral impressions. The probable nature of some of the impressions that she was likely to receive in such a home as her father had made hers may be easily imagined. The thought of this first suggested to the mother the possibility of her having to leave her husband. She was quietly, but firmly, resolved that the child should not run the risk of contamination. On several occasions the little girl had been terribly frightened by witnessing the conduct of her father on his coming home in a half-mad state of intoxication. At these times, and at others too, the mother had appealed to him to amend his ways, if not for her sake or his own, for the sake of his little girl. The husband's only reply had been scoffs and curses.
    At length, however, came a crisis. One day, to her utter horror, the mother heard her little daughter mingling with her innocent prattlings some of the horrible language that the father was in the habit of using when "in drink." She made this the ground for a last earnest and energetic appeal to the man, giving him distinctly to understand that it was a last appeal, and that unless he reformed she would have to separate from him. Practically his answer to this appeal was to come home the same night more than usually intoxicated, and uttering language more than usually shocking. Then the mother showed her-[-119-]self as resolute as the wife had been patient and long- suffering. She would not remain another hour under the roof-tree whose purity and sanctity were thus wilfully outraged by the one who of all others should have guarded them.
    Taking her little one with her, she sought shelter for the night with a neighbour. The next day she put the child to board with a God-fearing old couple who had been friends of her parents, and then obtained for herself a place of service. Her husband, only too pleased to be allowed to go on his evil way unchecked, made no effort to interfere with liner plan. As it took nearly the whole of her wages to pay for the maintenance of her child, her new life was a hard one, but she was comparatively happy and contented under it. She had only been leading it a few months, however, when one day there came to her in hot haste a messenger bearing the news that her husband had met with a dreadful accident, and had been taken to ---- Hospital, where all his cry was that his wife should be brought to him. She went at once, and found that he was indeed terribly injured. She felt, even before the doctor gently "broke it" to her, that his injuries were fatal, that the hand of death was upon him. He had got a few days' employment upon a "chance" job, had been drinking, and while muddled with drink had fallen from the scaffold on which he was working on to some iron girders. When he was restored to consciousness in the hospital ward, he too felt that he was - in his own phrase - done for.
    And now his sins rose up in judgment against him, and made him sore afraid. He felt now that he had [-120-] deserved, and could scarcely hope to escape from, the wrath to come ; and the agony of the poor mangled body was forgotten in the greater agony of soul wrought by the thronging memories of his evil and misspent life. Now was he eager to do works meet for repentance, while afraid to hope that even repentance - such eleventh-hour repentance as was all that was left to him - could avail him aught. He sent for his wife to beg forgiveness of her. At the first word the forgiveness was fully and freely accorded, and then the wife prayed fervently with and for the erring husband - prayed that forgiveness might he as freely extended to him on high.
    At the man's request the wife was allowed to remain with him, and during the three days and nights through which he lingered she was constantly by his side, doing all that a woman could to soothe him both in body and mind. When the shadows of the earthly death were fast closing in upon him, the dawn of the heavenly hope at last seemed to fall upon his troubled spirit. In the after years the wife had the consoling belief that when the end did come it was peace; that the wicked man had really turned from his wickedness; that his repentance, though late, was sincere, humble, and acceptable.
    During her attendance upon her husband's deathbed the wife had unconsciously displayed such marked natural talent for nursing that the hospital authorities offered her a nurse-ship just then vacant. As it was a considerably more lucrative position than that of a domestic servant, she gladly accepted it, and thus became "Nurse Nine. "In a short time she too discovered that in nursing she had found a sort of natural mis-[-121-]sion, and her work became to her as a labour of love. She now regarded her career as fixed, and, above all things, after her experience of wedded life, had certainly no idea of ever entering the married state again; but God disposes!
    She had been about two years in the hospital when the incident occurred that again changed the current of her life and led to her becoming a resident in my district. One night the house in which her child was living was discovered to be on fire. It was an old house, and, like many old houses in riverside neighbour-hoods had a good deal of tarred woodwork about it. As a consequence it burned with alarming rapidity. It was with considerable difficulty that even the adult inmates were got out, and it was not till after they were out that the cry went forth that there was still a child in the burning building. Then there was intense excitement and much running to and fro among the crowd, but nothing practical was done until the arrival upon the scene of a sailor, who was home from a voyage and had been calling upon some acquaintances in the neighbourhood.
    He took in the situation at a glance, and acted upon the instant. The house was low built, and a suggestion had been made to reach the bedroom floor by means of a plank laid up to the window, but the only plank that had been obtainable had been abandoned as too short for the desired purpose. By rearing it at a sharp angle, however, the sailor got it within arm's length of the window-sill, and with his skill, strength and courage to aid, this was sufficient for the purpose of rescue. [-122-] calling upon the landsmen to steady the plank below, he quickly mounted its steep incline, got one hand upon the sill, threw up the window with the other, then without a moment's hesitation, though the tongues of flame shot out to meet him, swung  himself into the room.
    For more than a minute's space, which seemed to them a far longer time, the excited crowd in the street was hushed to breathless silence. Then, to their intense relief - relief which found expression upon the part of the men in a ringing cheer and upon the part of' the women in various wild exclamations of joy - the sailor reappeared at the window bearing the child in his arms. While he had been clambering to the window a stout horse-rug had been brought, and was now held stretched below by half a dozen strong pairs of arms. The building was already visibly tottering, and the rescuer needed no second telling to drop the child, which was safely caught in the rug. But before the rug could be spread again, or he could reach the plank by which me had ascended, the house went down with a crash and he with it. He was got out from the ruins severely injured, and was conveyed to the hospital in which Nurse Nine was engaged and his arrival was the first intimation that she received of what had happened.
    That she nursed him within a loving tenderness need scarcely be said, but she did much more than this. She came to a resolution concerning him such as only a large-hearted and noble-minded woman could have come to. She resolved to marry him; that it was her duty to do so; that he had established a claim upon her that could be met in no other way. In rescuing from a [-123-] terrible death the child she loved so dearly he had been rendered a helpless cripple. He was into longer fit to earn his own living, he had no relatives to aid him, and she was certainly not in a position to support him in the way of making him anything like an adequate allowance. But she had a quiet and as the event proved, a justifiable, confidence in her own ability to maintain by her single exertions a little home for him, her child, and herself. This plan she considered she could best carry out by in the first place marrying the man, and so, as I have said, she resolved to do so. Accordingly, when his general health was restored they were married.
    Partly with money she had saved since she had been in the hospital, partly on credit, she purchased the stock and goodwill of the little mangling and laundry business in my district in which I found her. Here she prospered from the first. She obtained the family washing of a number of the leading tradesmen of the quarter, and got together the best mangling connection in the neighbourhood.
    After a little time, too, her husband was able to make himself useful to contribute a quota to the labour supply of the establishment. He devised and "rigged up" for himself a small bench, by the aid of which he could turn the mangle; and, being a handy man, he also taught himself to do shoemaking repairs, and established a little business in that line. For this the wife was duly grateful, but an infinitely greater thing in her mind was the fact that her husband, who previous to their marriage had simply been "a good fellow," was by God's good blessing upon her persuasion and example brought to be [-124-] a  Christian in the higher and fuller sense - a believing, praying, God-fearing, God-trusting man.
    After years of tribulation this good woman was at length happy. She had to work very hard, but she did so cheerfully, and still found time for much well-doing among her neighbours, in such ways as I have already spoken of. In the opinion of those neighbour's her own works praise her in the gates. They love her, and call her blessed; and knowing how she has suffered, seeing that she has come out of the fire purified, they regard her as the Christian heroine, which I think the story of her life, even as I have been able to tell it here, stamps her as being.