Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 16 - A Touch of Nature

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THE proverbial kindness of the poor to each other is perforce generally shown in the shape of personal service, and often takes very characteristic forms, and is associated with very characteristic incidents. As an illustration of this phase of the inner life of the poor, I will, with the reader's permission, record an incident that came under my notice some little time ago.
    One hot, glaring summer afternoon I had been called to the City on business, and while proceeding along a leading thoroughfare noticed, among those ahead of me, a woman labouring painfully forward under the burden of a child that even at a distance I could see was no mere infant in arms. From her whole attitude and manner you could tell that she bore the child right lovingly; and love must have given her strength, for her task was one that, on such a day, might well have broken down a strong woman, and she, it was evident at a glance, was but feeble of frame and health.
    To a practised eye it was equally evident that she belonged to the "poor but honest class. Her garments were of coarse material and much worn, but they were clean and tidy, and showed, as their more marked token of poverty, not tatters, but patches. She held on her way slowly but [-224-] resolutely, taking a brief rest from time to time, as any step or favourable projection afforded an opportunity for sitting down. The child, a girl of about seven years of age, was apparently suffering from some affection of the limbs that rendered the legs, at least, entirely powerless, and hence the necessity for her being carried. As I came up with them the woman was laying her burden down on a doorstep to take a moment's rest.
    "She seems to be too much for you," I said, by way of opening a conversation.
    "She is, almost," the woman answered, getting the words out between her laboured breathings, "though that's small blame to her; there ain't much of her, poor little dear!"
    She looked at the child with ineffable love and pity as she spoke; and it was indeed easy to see that the pretty face and slight frame were greatly wasted and worn with disease - that it was not the weight of the child, but her own physical weakness, that made the mother's task so heavy.
    "What is the matter with her? " I asked.
    "Well, I hardly know, sir, beyond a sort of wasting weakness. The doctors, the few times I've been able to get them to her, haven't given her complaint a name. I was in hopes to have heard more to-day. I have had her up to the hospital for children, but after all my trouble in getting there and waiting ever so long for it to open, and ever so much longer for my turn to come, I was told it was not the right day for the doctor that takes her sort of complaint. The doctor I did see, though, was very kind, and gave me a bottle of medicine to be [-225-] going on with till the right day comes round. But whether I shall be able to get up on that day," she added, lowering her voice as though she were now rather thinking aloud than directly addressing me, "is more than I can tell. It'll all depend upon whether 'Larky' can give us a lift again."
    "You had a lift up to the hospital, then?" I said.
    "Not me," she answered with a faint smile, "the child. It was only a hand-barrer, you see. One of the men in our court, 'Larky' Ellis, as they calls him, has a barrer of his own; and a-hearing as how I wanted to get Lizzie here to the hospital, and didn't know to manage it, ses he, 'I'll wheel the little gal up for you, free and willin';' and very kind it was of him to do it. He had to get up I don't know how early in the morning to be able to do it. Yer see, he's in the greengrocering on his own account, and has to be at Farringdon Market every morning by five o'clock to buy stock; and in course he had to get to the hospital a tidy bit before five, so as to get on to the market in time after."
    "You'd have a long while to wait for the opening of the doors, then," I said.
    "Well, yes," she said; "but we didn't mind that much. The air seems so much better up there than down our way that we could almost a-feel it a-doing us good. The worst of it was," and here again a shadowy smile crept over her wan features, "it made us feel so much the more hungry. We'd eat the bit of bread and butter we had taken with us by eight o'clock. That is one reason, I expect, why I feel so weak, for I ain't had bite nor sup since. No, don't let me tell a story," she [-226-] hastily added, correcting herself; "I shouldn't have said 'nor sup,' for a little while ago, when I felt as if I really would have dropped, I took some of this medicine here." And as she spoke she drew from her pocket a bottle bearing the label of the hospital - as I took care to notice, though I had really no reason to in the least doubt the truthfulness of her story.
    The medicine here in question was no puffed and patented nostrum compounded on principles of medicine-taking made easy. It had nothing of the sugar-coating system about it, but had in full degree the medicinal quality of nauseousness. The idea of such a medicine being taken at random, as refreshment, seems at a first glance laughably incongruous, and under most circumstances would really be a sufficiently good joke; but there was no room for laughter and jest here; all was sad, stern, earnest - a touch not of the comedy but the tragedy of life.
    "Are you a widow?" I next asked, and in reply to that and following questions she recounted at some length the story of her life. It was, unhappily, a common enough story, and may he very briefly reproduced here.
    She was a widow. Her husband had been an ordinary unskilled labourer, and as three children had been born to them, even her married life had been a continuous struggle with poverty, and the loss of income and sickbed expenditure consequent upon her husband's death illness had left her a literally penniless widow. Love for her children restrained her from adopting any calling that would withdraw her from home all day, and so, as a means of livelihood, she betook herself to plain needle-[-227-]work - perhaps the worst paid of all the many ill-paid forms of female labour.
    Under the bitter struggle and hardship - often amounting to absolute want - that ensued, two of her three children pined away and died. As often happens in eases of this kind, the child of the family that survived was the sickliest and feeblest of them all - the one who, it would naturally have been supposed, would have been taken first. This was the little girl whom I had seen. Her weakness had always especially endeared her to her mother, and the loss of the other children had made her doubly dear. The mother's great object in life was, in her own phrase, to have the child "set up" - to get her health established. To this end she had attended local dispensaries, both free and "provident," had consulted local doctors and local quacks, tried "no end" of old women's remedies, and even resorted to, though but very faintly believing in, a strongly recommended charm. But all had been of little or no avail.
    At length she heard of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children - heard of it as a place where surprising cures of afflicted little ones were effected, a place where, if anywhere, her child could be benefited. At a first thought it would seem that for her to take the child to the hospital would have been a very simple affair; but, as a matter of fact, the thing faced her as a very difficult matter indeed. Poverty such as this woman's binds down in many directions, and binds very hard and last. It circumscribes not merely action, but thought and habits of self-reliance. For while none are [-228-] more self-reliant than are the very poor when moving within their own groove, none are more dazed or helpless when taken out of their groove.
    For years this poor woman had never been more than half a mile from her own house. All the great city, all the roaring, seething, stony Babylon beyond that distance was an unknown land to her. She had but a very vague notion of even the direction in which Great Ormond Street lay, and though she took it for granted that it was get-at-able by train or bus, she was so situated just at that time that she could not have mustered even a shilling or two for travelling expenses. If she could only get the child to the hospital, she said, she could manage to carry her home, as on the return journey she could take her time, and rest as often as necessary. How to get there, though, that was the rub. Those of her neighbours to whom she spoke could and did sympathise with her heartily, but could do nothing more, being for the most part as poor as herself. But behold, when to the painfully anxious mother all seemed hopeless, the friend in need appeared.
    There was a neighbour to whom she had not spoken of her trouble, who she had thought would not care to hear of it, and would be more likely to treat it with chaff than sympathy. This was the costermonger, "Larky." To outward seeming, as I gathered, his leading characteristics were cynicism and slanginess, his chief delights to chaff all and sundry, and haunt the "harmonic meetings" of neighbouring public-houses. But though, like many of his "betters" now-a-days, he affected an utter worldliness of tone, the event [-229-] proved him to be a true man, one with a heart "tender for babes and women." In some incidental way he heard of the poor widow's difficulty, and at once the manhood in him asserted itself. He could give both sympathy and service, and he immediately proceeded to warmly express the one and volunteer the other. So far as a "lift" to the hospital was concerned, he said the poor little girl should not miss a chance, and he was only sorry he hadn't known before what was wanted. He had his own hand-"shallow," he went on to explain, and each morning went to Farringdon Market to buy stock. By starting a little earlier any morning he could go on to the hospital, put the mother and child down there, and then go back to the market. Then bustling through his round as quickly as he could, he would run up to the hospital again in the afternoon and bring his friends home.
    The mother, not calculating upon the long wait at the hospital or its weakening effect, would accept but the first part of the coster's kind offer. She knew that, do his best, she might have to wait some considerable time after she came out of the hospital before he could get up the second time to take her home. But though this weighed with her, it was not her chief reason for deciding to walk back. Gratitude made her thoughtfully considerate. She was aware that for a costermonger to "bustle through his round" at undue speed might damage his business, and though he was willing to serve her to the full, and "never count the cost," she would not consent that her friend in need should run the risk of suffering injury through his own good deed. The arrangement ultimately [-230-] agreed upon had been carried out upon the morning of the day upon which I had come upon the mother and child ; and how this first visit to the hospital had resulted has been seen.
    When she had brought her story down to the point at which I had met her, there was silence between us for a brief space, and then the woman, gathering the child closer to her breast, rose to go. The effort making her weakness painfully apparent, I asked, "Have you far to walk?"
    "Somewhere about three miles," she answered.
    "Three miles!" I exclaimed in astonishment; "surely not so far as that."
    "They tell me that's the distance," she answered; "anyway, sir, it's far enough. and I must be going."
    "Where do you live then, may I ask?" I said, moving on with her.
    She at once mentioned an address at the east end of London that was indeed fully three miles from the ground we were traversing.
    "Why, you will never be able to manage it," I remonstrated.
    "I must manage it, sir," she answered, with a touch of impatience in her voice; "people as poor as me have to manage a great many hard things."
    This was clearly one of those cases in which there is no room for hesitancy or inquiry. There was the weak woman, the helpless child, and three long weary miles of London's stony streets between them and their home. Fully three miles must she have come already to reach the spot where I found her. She had not sought my [-231-] notice. I had spoken to her, and unless my pretty extensive experience among the poor was greatly at fault, she was an honest woman and a true mother - one who would die in harness for her child's sake. Having heard so much of her story, I felt that it would be an active cruelty upon my part to let her struggle on afoot any farther.
    "I know that more fully than you are aware," I said, replying to her last observation; " but this thing seems altogether too hard; you must let me send you home."
    Without waiting for any reply, I hailed a passing cab, in which I placed her. She sank into the seat with her child across her knee, and looked the gratitude that for the moment she had not breath to utter. The long-drawn sigh with which she recovered her breath spoke even more of physical faintness than of a sense of relief and noting this it occurred to me that she stood in immediate need of food. Ascertaining from the cabman that there was a coffee-house close by, I ordered a tea for her there. Then settling with the cabman, and promising the poor woman to call upon her in the evening, I went on my way for the time being.
    Having transacted my business, I set out east ward, and about seven o'clock in the evening found myself in the street from which the court branched that the woman had given me as her address. It was a rough neighbourhood, with a good many rough-looking customers loafing about it, some of whom eyed me with glances that were of anything but a favouring character. After some looking about I at length caught sight of the name of the court I was in search of; and at the same moment [-232-] became aware of the presence of a gentleman of the "coster" species who was in a great measure blocking up the entrance to the place. He was a smart, or, as he would probably have phrased it, an "Ikey"-looking personage. He was about thirty years of age, with a good figure, and a not bad set of features, and he evidently fancied himself in the matter of being "knowing." With his hands thrust in his pockets, and his fur-trimmed cap jauntily cocked aside, he was regarding me, as I approached him, with an aggressively defiant air, and on seeing that he had caught my attention, he began to troll out what, I take it, was the burden of some music-hall ditty. The words, as well as I can remember, ran - 

        "Oh my what a pious lot we are,
            And how very good we all seem to be
        But what a duffing lot you'd find,
            Could you only raise the blind
        And catch us on the strict Q. T."

    I looked him hard and straight in time face, trying to take some measure of my man. He met my look unflinchingly, and probably from misinterpreting it, replied to it - if reply it could be called - by another snatch of music-hall song running -

        "Did you ever catch a weasel asleep?
        Did you ever with a sprat hook a whale?
        Did you ever, in a word, catch a knowing old bird
        With a little bit of salt upon its tail?"

    Notwithstanding his gratuitously offensive manner towards me, there was a something likeable and kindly in his face, and wishing if possible rather to make friends [-233-] than take offence, I stepped up to him, and speaking in the tone of one who was assured of receiving a civil answer, asked, "Can you tell me at what number in this court Mrs.----- lives?"
    If, instead of this simple question, my words had formed some potent spell, they could scarcely have produced a more startling effect. In an instant his swaggering air of knowingness vanished, and he stood there blushing - actually blushing to the very roots of his hair.
"What!" he exclaimed, beginning to recover himself, "are you the gen'lem' as sent her home in a cab encettera?"
    I nodded assent, and he went on, "Of course, I ought to have guessed that the minute I see you spotting the court; how-sum-never, I didn't, and so I humbly beg yer pardon, sir."
    "For what?" I asked, keeping to myself the idea that now flashed upon me, to the effect that I ought to have as readily recognised Mr. "Larky" Ellis in the personage now before me.
    "Why, for trying to bounce yer with imperent looks, and slanging yer with flash songs," was the answer. "I'd a sooner cut my tongue out than a done it if I'd know'd it had been you. I know you'll tell me it was wrong to have done it towards anybody, and I dare say it was. All the same though, we often get pretty hard rubbed the wrong way of the fur by people as ain't up to their work, and don't know how to handle us, though they may mean well. But when I finds a man as'll put his hand to the barrer if he finds yer stuck in the mud, [-234-] as you did with Mrs.--------- to-day, I knows he is one of the right sort, and to be treated accordin', and so I begs yer pardon again, sir, and hope you'll forgive me."
    Personally I had nothing to forgive, I answered, as I had really taken no offence at his proceedings. Still, I went on, I hoped he would let this little incident teach him to be more just in judging those who sought out the poor with the object of spreading spiritual knowledge and consolation among them, and who, though they might not have the means of relieving material wants, might yet, by some divinely directed word in season, show a way to everlasting treasures.
    He listened respectfully, but simply bowed his head in reply, and, seeing that I had improved the occasion as far as - for the time being, at any rate - it was wise to do so, I fell back on my original position, and asked him to tell me the number of the house in which Mrs. --------- lived.
    "Oh, they don't run to numbers here," he answered; "but I'll show you, and so saying he led the way up the court, and having pointed to a particular door, left me."
    I found Mrs. -------- at home, and looking somewhat better than she had done in the afternoon, though even now you could see that she was terribly hunger and labour worn. She was fervently grateful for the little service I had been able to render her, and, from all that I saw and heard, I was satisfied that such service had been well bestowed - that her pitiful story was but "ower  true."
    The simple incident I have here recorded may on the face of it seem trifling, but, reader, thoughtfully con-[-235-]sidered there is much matter in such an episode, much "food for reflection." Think of it, read between its lines, try to realise in thought how much it means, how much it indicates of the sorrow and suffering incidental to the lot of the poor, and of the God-given love and patience and trustfulness that enable them to bear their lot with the resignation as to the present, and hopefulness as to the hereafter, with which they do bear it. How much it indicates also of that neighbourly help, which is one of the sweetest drops in the cup of life of the poor - help which, as in this case, often comes unasked from unexpected and unlikely quarters, and affords some of the finest of those touches of nature that make the whole world kin.