Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 15 - Going Under

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 ONE bright, warm spring day, while "on round" in a rookery quarter of my district, I was talking to a seamstress in the "ready-made" shirt trade, who had come forth from her stifling back room to get a breath of fresh air - such fresh air, save the mark, as is to be obtained in a London rookery. She was seated on the doorstep, and I had scarcely been talking with her for a minute's space when I was startled by a deep though half-suppressed groan proceeding from the ground floor front room, by the partially open window of which I was standing. The seamstress heard the sound too, but it seemed rather to pain than surprise her. Considering how precious every moment is to them, the women who live by "slop" needlework do not allow slight causes to hinder needle and thread. But as this low groan met her ear, the shirtmaker let her work drop on her lap, and, with a distressed look upon her face, turned her head towards the window in a listening attitude. For the moment she was too intent upon listening to volunteer any remark, and after a brief pause I asked - 
    "Is it some one taken ill?"
    "Ill, though not just taken ill," answered the needlewoman in an undertone, and rising to her feet as she [-210-] spoke.  "It is the party that lives in the room," she went on, still speaking low; "she is a rag-sorter, and she got her hand poisoned close upon a fortnight ago now. It is very bad, and what with the pain and hard living she is worn to a skeleton almost. Not being able to work, you see, she ain't been in a position to get proper care or nourishment, and she is less in a position now than ever. In fact, so far as I can judge, from putting two and two together, I should say she had spent her last coin. When the pain is very bad it relieves it to bathe the hand in hot water, but I feel certain that if we could see into her room now we would find that she had neither wood to boil her kettle nor a halfpenny to buy a bundle of firewood with. Of course any of us would give her a drop of hot water, or, as far as that goes, do anything or everything else in our power to help her, if she would give us the chance. But you see she is one that has gone under - that has seen better days, you know, and come down in the world. There is nothing of the stuck-up Madame Touch-me-not about her, still you can see that she wishes to keep herself to herself, and one doesn't like to force one's self upon her."
    I was about to put it that perhaps the poor woman was only timid, and would gladly accept neighbourly services that she would hesitate to ask for, but at that moment the sufferer within the room moaned aloud again, and this expression of agony had a greater effect upon the seamstress than any words of mine would have had.
    "There, I can stand it no longer," she exclaimed; "I will force myself upon her if need be, and I won't take 'No' for an answer neither."
    [-211-] As she spoke she hastily tucked her work under her arm, and stepping into the passage knocked softly at the door of the afflicted rag-sorter's room. "Yes," came answer.
    "It is only me, Mrs. ----- , you know, your next room neighbour," said the Samaritan-minded shirtmaker; "I can hear that your poor hand is paining you badly again may I bring you a basin of hot water, my kettle is just on the boil?"
    "Thank you, if you will," was the response, "for I am indeed in great pain."
    The speaker had opened the door and looked out to give her reply, and I noticed that she presented an exceedingly worn and emaciated appearance. She was wretchedly clad too, and as in her weakness and agony she had been crying, her face was for the moment tear-stained and her eyes inflamed. But through all these disadvantages there was evident a refinement of tone and manners that would have told me, if I had not already been told, that this woman was one who had "seen better days." It seemed to me that, as her glance fell upon me standing upon the outer doorstep, she was somewhat confused, and drew back rather hastily into her room.
    A minute later the other woman, who bad departed to get the basin of hot water, returned bearing it in her hands. Nodding good-day to her, I was about to take my leave, when she whispered, " I would like you to wait a little while, if you don't mind. She stands in need of a good deal more help than I can give her, and now that the ice is broken she may be willing to take any help that is offered."
    [-212-] Without waiting for a reply she entered the room, and after a brief interval she came and beckoned me to enter also. "Do you understand this sort of thing?" she said, pointing to the other woman's injured hand, which I perceived was swollen and inflamed to an extent that must have rendered it intensely painful.
    "It will require something more than warm water to cure that," the seamstress remarked, looking significantly at me.
    "Yes," I assented, "and skill as well as kindness. I will call at Dr. ----- as I go along," and to avoid any parley upon the point I heft the house at once. From what I told him the doctor was able to send a lotion and sleeping draught at once, and he undertook to visit the case himself the following day. From his surgery I went to the shop of "the Old Soldier," and arranged with her to send certain small supplies of provisions to the invalid during the next few days.
    A week hater I called again upon the sick rag-sorter, and found her materially improved in health. The hand had been lanced, the "poison" discharged, the inflammation subdued, while the swelling and the pain had alike almost totally disappeared. The pain-haggard look of the countenance had gone too, though the face still wore a fixed sadness of expression. Looking at her now when she was "more herself," it occurred to me that I knew her face, that I had seen her before under different and happier circumstances. The seamstress when speaking of her had not mentioned her name, and it was not for me to abruptly ask for the name at that moment.
    In dealing with those of the poorest of the poor who [-213-] "have seen better days and wish to keep themselves to themselves," it is not always kind to question closely or unnecessarily. If you are satisfied that for the time being they are in need of help and unable to help themselves, it is better to let that knowledge suffice until further knowledge of the story of their lives is voluntarily imparted, as in due season it generally is imparted. Without asking questions, therefore, I tried to recall to mind where it was that in bygone years I had met this woman, but for the moment my memory would not serve me.
    The room that now constituted her home was, like the best of such rooms, scantily furnished. A chair-bedstead, a small table, a single chair, all more or less "rickety," and some half-dozen pieces of common crockery, made up the catalogue of the furniture. In many tenement rooms the walls are almost papered with the cheap unframed plain and coloured - especially coloured-prints issued by the illustrated newspapers and periodicals - which prints the inhabitants of tenement houses pick up at odd times. But in this room the walls were bare save for a single picture, which, however, stood out in bold relief from its surroundings by reason of its being in a large, handsome, and, evidently somewhat expensive frame. The picture was only a cabinet-sized photographic portrait of a young man in the uniform of an officer of the Mercantile Marine, but it was set in m unusually large white "mount," and thus, with the frame, made a fair-sized picture.
    The face of the portrait struck me, as the face of the woman had done, as being one that I had seen before. Going close to the picture I noticed that there were some lines written on the lower margin of the mount - a cir-[-214-]cumstance that probably accounted for so wide a mount having been used. The writing, which was in a neat feminine band, ran - 

        "Oh, my lost iove, and my own, own love,
            And my love that loved me so,
        Is there never a chink in the world above
            Where they listen for words from below?

        We shall stand no more by the seething main,
            While the dark wrack drives overhead,
        We shall part no more in the wind and rain,
            Where thy last farewell was said
        But perhaps I shall see thee and know thee again 
            When the sea gives up her dead."

    I knew the lines, which were from Jean Ingelow's strangely pathetic song "When Sparrows Build," a song that is a favourite with the better class of sea-going folks. Here the written words brought "association of ideas." As I finished reading them the "flash of recollection" came, and I knew where it was that I had seen the living face. "Why, this is a portrait of young George S------, who was lost in the E----- ," I said, turning to the woman.
    "Yes," she answered.
    "And you," I added, for now I remembered her face too, though it was greatly altered, "are his widow."
    "Yes," she said again, and it was all that she could say, for her voice was choked by emotion.
    The story of this couple was one of those little romances that do occasionally happen even in real life. George S------ had "followed the sea" from his boyhood upwards. He was a handsome, clever, energetic young fellow, [-215-] ambitions to rise in his profession. When barely twenty years of age he was already third officer of a large steamer plying between London and the Continent. On one of his outward runs he noticed a pretty young English girl in charge of' a couple of foreign harpies who made a business of trapping girls into a fate worse than death. That this was a pure and innocent girl being basely deceived he felt morally certain, and by getting the stewardess to make cautious inquiries, he ascertained definitely that such was actually the case. The girl was a friendless orphan, and was going abroad in the belief that she was being taken to an excellent situation as a nursery governess.
    As they were nearing their port of destination George caused the girl to be enlightened - again through the stewardess - as to the true character of the man and woman into whose hands she had fallen. The girl was terribly alarmed by the information, and on landing refused to accompany the harpies. Enraged at this, the male harpy attempted to take her with them by force, whereupon the young sailor, who had been quietly but keenly watching proceedings, promptly knocked him down, leaving the discomfited ruffian to sneak off muttering of legal revenge. George, accompanied by the stewardess, escorted the terrified girl on board the "sister ship" to his own, which was just upon the point of steaming out of harbour on her return to England.
    On an explanation of the circumstances of the case, the captain of the vessel readily agreed to give the rescued girl a passage home, and it being discovered that the [-216-] harpy was really taking steps to have George arrested, it was further arranged that the latter should change berths with the third officer of the ship. On their arrival in London the young seaman placed the girl with his mother, who was well stricken in years, and pleased to have the society and help of one who soon became to her as a daughter. That a young couple who had become acquainted under such circumstances as these should fall in love with each other was pretty much a matter of course, and a year later, George having been made second officer of the E------ , they were married.
    They set up their home in one of the better streets of my district, and it was then that I first had knowledge of them. A handsomer or happier young couple it would have been hard to find, or a daintier little housewife than the young bride, or a prettier little home of its kind than hers. But their happiness was, alas, destined to be but of short duration. Six months after George had joined the vessel, the E------ was reported overdue at the foreign port to which she hind been outward bound. Then came the stock paragraph in the shipping intelligence that grave fears were entertained for her safety. Later her name was added to the list of missing vessels, and finally it was written off lost.
    The relatives of a number of the crew of the ill-fated ship lived in my district, and for them this period of suspense was indeed a trying time, - a time of the sickness of heart that comes of hope deferred, of alternating hopes and fears, and of never-ceasing anxiety, and to none was it a time of greater grief and care than to the young wife of the second officer. When at last she was told as gently as [-217-] might be that she must abandon all hope of ever seeing her husband again in this world, that his ship had probably been "poop'd" in the storm that had been raging in the Bay of Biscay at the time she would be there, and had gone down with every soul on board, her health quite broke down. For a month she was laid upon a sickbed, and even when she got about again she was for a further period too weak and sorrow-stricken to be capable of any considerable exertion.
    She was regarded with especial sympathy by her neighbours, but the women folk, while honestly wishing that they "might be mistaken," were sorrowfully of opinion that sine would, in the expressive phrase of the district, "go under." She was too delicate, too sensitive, too inexperienced, they put it in effect, to struggle successfully against the tremendous indraught towards the lower deeps of poverty in which women of the humbler classes find themselves battling when they are suddenly called upon to become breadwinners on their own account.
    As my readers have seen, this opinion was but too well founded; the young widow had gone under. The cargo had to be sacrificed to keep the ship afloat, so to speak. First the collection of ornaments and curios that her husband had gathered together during his many voyages had to be parted with to meet current expenses, and later time pretty little home, to which she had been brought a bride, had to be broken up altogether. Selling part of the furniture, she moved with the remainder to a lower rented quarter, where she tried to establish herself as a dressmaker, a business at which she was said to be an expert; but before she could "work up a living connection" the [-218-] small reserve fund realised by the sale of her surplus furniture was "eaten up."
    In this strait she entirely "sold off" the second and humbler home, and left the neighbourhood, taking with her of all her former "belongings" only the portrait of her husband. With that she had never parted, however hardly she had been driven in the after years, and there had been times when she had been literally and absolutely in want of bread. She had not told any one where she was going - in fact, had at the time no very definite idea as to where she would go. She had "struck her tent like an Arab, and as silently stolen away." From that time none who had known her during her short married life had heard or seen anything of her, until my accidental meeting with her under the circumstances described.
    On the story of her trials and privations during the intervening period there is no need to dwell in detail. It is sufficient to say that the trials had been many, the privations great. Considering her inexperience, that her health bad been shattered, and that she was without friends, she had fought a good fight. Nevertheless, she had gone under, had been engulfed in the deep of poverty in which I found her.
    With my accidental encounter with her came at last for her a turn of the tide. Just at that juncture it came to the knowledge of my friend "the Old Soldier" that a young woman of her acquaintance who worked for herself, and had a connection in the ready-made costume trade, was about to be married and to give up work upon her own account. To any one who would [-219-] take her business over and pay money down, this young person was willing to sell her two sewing-machines at a really low price, and to introduce the purchaser to the tradesmen by whom she had been employed. That was au opportunity that would just suit George S-------'s widow, "the Old Soldier" suggested, if only the money could be got together. On the circumstances of the case being explained to some to whom it was a pleasure to assist according to their means in any such good work, the money was got together and the transfer of the business duly made.
    "The Old Soldier" had judged rightly; this fresh start in life proved a case of "land at last" for the woman chiefly concerned. Here the "living connection" was already on hand, and to those employing her it soon became apparent that Mrs. S----- had an especial capacity for the work. She was a woman of taste and ideas, could design new patterns and suggest improvements in old ones. Under her management the business rapidly increased, and she had soon to employ "hands." Those whom she did employ had reason to consider themselves fortunate. The hardships she had gone through had not hardened her; on the contrary, they had increased her original kindness of disposition. When she became in her degree prosperous again, she was not only willing, she was ever anxious to do anything in her power to uphold any woman whom she knew to be in danger of going under as she had gone. That she regarded as a duty, as the especial form of thanks-offering due for her own rescue.
    So this woman went under, so she was brought to the surface again. Taken broadly, this story of her going [-220-] down might be regarded as a typical one. Unfortunately the latter part of the story constitutes its exceptional feature. It is not once in a hundred times that a woman who has fairly gone under in the dreary fight with poverty rises again. Those whom the deeps of poverty engulf they generally continue to hold. Those who live nearest to the danger of such engulfment know this, and they struggle with all the strength of the despair that comes of such knowledge when they find themselves being drawn down.
    There is no more painful "study of poverty" than to watch such a struggle, to look on pityingly but helplessly, save perhaps in some stray instance, though you know that thousands are slowly but surely sinking. You see the women whose work has previously been confined to "the wife's dominion" suddenly thrown upon "the labour market," the market in which every form of labour that they are capable of is chronically overcrowded, and the wages paid, even if work is obtained, starvation wages. You see the once comfortable home melting away, the clothing becoming scantier and shabbier, the form more gaunt and famine-smitten, the face more careworn. Then comes the final going under, the despairing self-effacement, the ceasing to struggle save for bare existence, and the shrinking away from the sight or knowledge of those to whom they have been known in better days.
    Thus, alas! too often the struggle ends; but such a case as that I have here told is one of those experiences that now and again cheer and stimulate those who work among the poor.