Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 23 - A Wasted Life

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 A NUMBER of the common lodging-houses of my district belong to a single proprietor, who, being a man of the day, has adopted the modern custom of styling the houses "Chambers." Of these the W-----  Street Chambers are the most extensive.
    The manager of this particular establishment is popularly known as the Deputy-General, for in addition to being the acting deputy of the one house, he has to "keep an eye" upon the proceedings of the deputies of the other houses. In his degree the Deputy-General is a man who has risen. In the first instance he had come to the houses as a nightly "dosser." In those days it occasionally befell him to be without the price of a night's lodging, and he was allowed to "work it out" by assisting the deputies in keeping order and "cleaning up." In this connection the proprietor, a keen man of business, had marked him as a capable, trustworthy fellow, and had promoted him, first, to the position of a regular deputy; and, finally, to be his Deputy-General.
    For the latter position, to which he had recently attained when I first made his acquaintance, he was the right man in the right place, - a man not to be deceived or trifled with in his official capacity, firm and decisive [-330-] in the discharge of his duties, but never harsh either in judgment or action towards his subordinates or his lodgers. He was intelligent and observant, hard-headed it might be, but kind-hearted. Though he could scarcely be described as a well-educated man, he was a well- informed one, devoting a good deal of his day-time leisure to miscellaneous reading. Many a helpful tip did the Deputy-General give me in the earlier days of my work among the poor, and many the curious, and still more, many the sad story he has from time to time told me of his motley customers. And none more sad or more suggestive than the one I am about to speak of here.
    Glancing in at the open door of the common kitchen of the W----- Street Chambers as I was passing one morning, I saw the Deputy-General and some half-dozen of the habitual frequenters of the house, who had not yet cleared out for the day, engaged in earnest conversation. Looking up and seeing me, the Deputy, instead of merely "passing the time of day," beckoned me to come in, and on my entering asked - 
    "Do you know that Brown, as we called him - or I should say as he called himself - is dead?"
    "No, I did not know that," I replied, though I was not surprised to hear it, as I was aware that he had on the previous day been removed to the workhouse infirmary, dangerously ill.
    "He is dead," the Deputy proceeded; "he was slipping his cable fast when they moved him from here, and he went out with the tide at dawn this morning. We can but hope now that he has reached the better land."
    [-331-] "Yes, we must hope that," I assented; "and if there is good ground for the hope, one can scarcely be sorry that he is gone; his life, as we know it at any rate, was a pitiful affair."
    That seemed to me to be his own thought, the Deputy commented; "he knew that his life was broken, that there was only misery before him if he lived. So far as I could judge, he was wishful to die, and prepared. I never saw so happy a look on his face in his lifetime as there was upon it as he lay in the first stillness of death."
    "Were you with him when he died, then?" I asked.
    "Yes," the Deputy answered; "he sent for me, and I went; and I am glad I did, for there was neither friend nor kindred there beside."
    "'You've come, then,' he said, speaking faintly, when I got to his bedside; 'I knew you would, though it is very good of you all the same. I am dying, you know; and though many a better man has had to do so, I would not like to die without a friendly hand to grasp in mine, a friendly face to look my last upon.'
    "'Oh, perhaps you'll pull through yet,' I said, trying to speak a bit cheerfully.
    "'No,' he said, shaking his head, there is no mistaking the touch of death; 'I shall not pull through, and it would not be well either for myself or any one else that I should. For me the end is at hand; I shall soon be sleeping the last long sleep that knows no earthly waking, and I am ready for it. I am very weary, and longing to be at rest. I have sinned, but I have suffered; and I have prayed for forgiveness where forgiveness is not denied even to such as I have been.'
    [-332-]  "Was there no one nearer or dearer to him that he could send for?" I asked.
    "'No,'" he said again; 'all who were near or dear to me, or to whom I was near and dear, have gone before; father and mother, sister and brother, and friend - the one friend who bore with me and helped me the longest and the last. All passed away, while I, the worthless one, lived on; but my call has come now, and I hope to be with them again soon, where sin and sorrow and parting are unknown.'
    "'Did he want to leave any message; was there any wish I could carry out for him?' was the next question I asked him, the Deputy continued; "to which he answered, 'Things are best as they are. Nothing will be lost by my dying and making no sign. Mine is, after all, a very commonplace mystery; nothing of the fallen prince or disguised nobleman, or anything of that kind about it, you know. I stained my name - a good and honest name up to that time - and was a grief and shame to those who bore it, so let it perish with me; there are none to miss me.'
    "As he finished speaking he went off faint, and the nurse, who had been standing a little aside, looking on, came up and gave him a teaspoonful of some cordial. Presently the life seemed to flicker up in him again, and he began to pray, and the words of prayer were the last upon his lips. In a minute or two voice failed him, he sank gently back with his head on my arm, and with a smile upon his face, passed away.
    The Deputy-General had evidently been considerably affected by the deathbed scene he had witnessed but a  [-333-] few hours before, and in a lesser degree, those around him, though men not given to the melting mood, were also affected by what they had just heard, and for a brief space the group gathered together in the common lodging- house kitchen were solemnly silent. Breaking the silence when he had pulled himself together, the Deputy resumed, addressing himself to me -
    "We were talking about the funeral. Of course, it can't matter to him now, and I am sure he had no such question in his mind when he sent for me; but for a variety of reasons, including the circumstance that as, I may say, he died in my arms, I would not like to see him buried wholly as a pauper. I have seen my proprietor, and succeeded in persuading him that it would be a graceful act upon his part to bear what extra expense would be involved. What we purpose doing is to accept the order for the parish coffin and grave, and then arrange with the undertaker to put a plate and handles on the coffin, and supply a private hearse and mourning-coach, so that three or four of us may follow him to the grave, and the funeral have the look of an ordinary one."
    "And some of us'll see that there ain't a wreath or two wanting," put in one of the men, who was himself in the flower-hawking line.
    "So much is settled," the Deputy went on; "the point we were discussing was what inscription should be put upon the coffin-plate; for, of course, his name was not Brown."
    "I was always under the impression," I remarked, "that you knew, though you did not consider yourself at liberty to disclose his true name."
     [-334-] "That was not the case," the Deputy answered; "he confided in me to a certain extent, and apart from its being easy to guess, I knew from himself that his name was not Brown: but he never told me voluntarily what his right name was, and it was no business of mine to try to force his hand in the matter. His letters always came addressed to Brown, and post-office orders were made payable to Brown."
    "Well, what I says," observed thme flower-hawker who had previously spoken, "is that, as we didn't know his right name, and did know him by the name of Brown, and ain't going to have him buried as 'body of a man unknown,' why, Brown it must be on the coffin-plate."
    "Well, yes, I suppose that is what it must come to," observed the Deputy, "unless the undertaker can offer any better suggestion."
    The man with the fact of whose death I was in this manner made acquainted had for some years been - to use a somewhat self-contradictory phrase of the Deputy-General's - a regular casual frequenter of the W---- Street Chambers. In that character he was a well- known personage in the locality in which the lodging-house was situated. That he had seen better days was evident alike in his appearance and address, but his identity was a mystery that none of his lodging-house associates had ever been able to solve.
    He called himself Brown - Jack Brown - and as it seemed good to him to give himself brevet title to that name, and the frequenters of the lodging-house were willing to humour him on the point, by that name he was addressed, sometimes with the honorary addition of  [-335-] captain or colonel "thrown in." But when in his absence the question of his name came up for discussion, as, with other points concerning him, it occasionally did, when the habitués of the house were gathered as friends in council round the common kitchen fire, the comment was, "Brown What do you think ?" Some few individuals, inclined to take harsh views of life, were wont to suggest that he was probably "a wrong 'un." The opinion of the more charitably disposed majority, however, was that he was nothing worse than a misfortunate of the " nobody's-enemy-but-his-own" type - one who had brought himself down in the world, and found by experience that, as a favourite bard of lodging-house circles puts it -
        "When you're down they keeps you down
            Because they turns you up."
    As in the summer months Brown usually disappeared from town for considerable periods, it was inferred that he might go fruiting or hopping, or be trying his luck as some form of camp-follower of the army of pleasure-seekers at the seaside resorts. That, however, was merely conjecture; so far as was known he followed no calling, however poorly paid - had no ostensible means of support. A more definite impression with regard to him was that he lived chiefly upon money obtained in response to appeals to relatives or former friends - appeals to pure charity, or based upon the "how-much-will-you-give-me-to-keep-away?" principle.
    At any rate, there were times when he made no secret of being "flush of coin," when, not wishing, perhaps, to [-336-] place temptation in the way of his fellow-lodgers, he made the Deputy his banker, as well as his landlord, from night to night. The amounts he deposited were not upon record, the Deputy, who had a reputation for discretion to maintain, declining to mention them. Still, it was known that they generally ran into gold, while some who might be credited with special sharpness of vision and observation upon such a point, asserted that once or twice a bank-note been passed.
    Whether Brown's hauls, however obtained, included cast-off garments, or whether he spent part of the cash in new second-hand clothing, was a moot point with those who, for reasons of their own, took a watchful interest in his affairs. Discussion upon that, however, was a good deal in the way of being merely academic. The really material fact was, that Browns appearance in a "new rig-out" was usually the first outward and visible sign of the recurrence of a "flush" period. In his way Brown paid for dress. He was so far a tailor-made man that, when "togged up," he unconsciously shook off something of the slouching gait and shrinking air which characterised him in a general way.
    When in funds, and in his war-paint, so to speak, he was easily "tapped." Indeed, under this conjunction of his stars, he scarcely needed to be tapped. The golden stream flowed from him spontaneously ; he enacted the role of paymaster-general with effusion. That was why be was honoured by the clientele of the W---- Street Chambers; why he would have been called Smith, or Jones, or De Vere, or Montmorenci, had he so desired, "and no questions asked." While his money lasted he  [-337-] stood treat liberally. He partook freely, too, of the drink he provided - and here, probably, was in part, at least, the secret of his fall. When in his cups he would indulge in a good deal of tall talk, but only of a general character. He spoke in a vague, maudlin way of what he might have been and was not, and the days that were no more. Or he would prattle of the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that was still, and in self-pitying tones murmur that a sorrow's crown of sorrow was remembering happier things.
    These poetic scraps were greatly appreciated by his boon companions for the time being. They did not understand them, but they acted upon a general conclusion to the effect that they were in the nature of "toasts and sentiments," which could only be fittingly "responded to" in drinks, and in that fashion they responded enthusiastically. Referring to the squalid present, Brown would drop into proverbial philosophy, exclaim that it was of no use crying over spilled milk; that those who were down need fear no fall; that it was a poor heart that never rejoiced; a long lane that had no turning; and that in any case he cared for nobody, no, not he, if nobody cared for him. Whereupon he would be assured by the bodies present that they did care for him "immense," and that they were certain that the grade of society from which he had fallen was not worthy of him.
    By his lodging-house associates Brown was most appreciated when in funds. To the few others, including myself, who knew him, he was most interesting when it was, in lodging-house phrase, a case of "all in the downs" with him - when he was parting with his wardrobe to  [-338-] realise the nightly fourpence to pay for his bed, and living for the day upon a penny "lot" of broken food obtained from some other common lodging-house "used" by professional beggars. Under these conditions he displayed a patience, endurance, and cheeriness that, shown in earlier days and under other circumstances, might perhaps have saved him from the evil that had befallen him. He took things - superficially at least - in a philosophical spirit. He would tell you, and that in winter weather, that the happy man was the man, without a shirt, in which case he should often have been happy.
    In the same way he would remark that we could be good and happy without waistcoats; that burst boots were a safeguard against corns; and that the man who lived on a penny a day need have no fear of indigestion. A common lodging-house, he would admit, was not a desirable place of residence, but it was infinitely preferable to sleeping in the open air - a thing of which, as well as of the common lodging-house, he had had experience. Further, he would add upon this head, the registered and inspected common lodging-house was better than some of the cheap private lodging-houses of which in his day he had also had experience - lodging-houses in which there were three lodgers to a bed and six to a towel, and no soap save for the first man up in the morning, who usually, in a literal sense, "took the cake."
    Out of the royal and public parks, he would go on to say when in this vein, he got more use, and perhaps more pleasure, than well-to-do people; while the windows of the picture and print sellers' shops served as his art  [-339-] galleries, from which he derived as much enjoyment as he could have done had the pictures hung upon his own walls. Whether the sights and sounds of the cook-shop windows were a benefit to a hungry but penniless man was a point upon which to the last he remained in "philosophic doubt." So he would talk, glibly and flippantly enough, but there was probably heartache under it all.
    When in these straits he would watch for the postman with an eagerness painful to witness, and vainly try to conceal the looks of disappointment that followed the oft-repeated announcement that there was not anything for him. Sooner or later, however, the anxiously looked for letter would come to hand. Then followed the "new rig-out," the short period of riotous living, the treating of the harpies who hastened to flock round him again - and thus his miserable existence dragged on.
    I had supposed that the Deputy-General knew more of the history of this man than he cared to tell. What information he really possessed, it turned out, however, was of a very general character, was derived from Brown himself, and did not include his right name or the names or whereabouts of his friends. It was the old story, the Deputy had said when I had first spoken to him upon the subject, - a respectably connected young fellow, in a position of trust, going fast, and, finding himself in difficulties, appropriating his employer's money and being detected. Through the influence of relatives he was saved from legal prosecution, but he had lost his situation and his character, had fallen into loafing habits, and gradually gone under. "Of course," the Deputy had concluded, "his friends will tire of helping him."
    [-340-] "And what then?" I had asked.
    "Why, then," the Deputy replied, "it is an open question what will become of him, though it won't be any good. He is forty - looks fifty - and is broken in health, so would have no chance as a cas'alty labourer. He might try his hand as a boardman, or, as he is well educated, and can write a very 'fetching' letter, he might get picked up as a working hand by some begging-letter impostor or other swindler of that kind; or he might end it all by a plunge in the river."
    Not a hopeful view this, but probably an accurate one, for the Deputy spoke from a considerable experience of customers of the type of the one who had chosen to be known as Jack Brown.
    The speculations as to what would become of the latter individual if his friends should fail him were in the event scarcely put to the test. The long-suffering friends, whoever they may have been, endured almost to the end. About a month before his death Brown had returned to the lodging-house, after an absence from it of several weeks, looking starved and haggard and woe-begone. In answer to the Deputy's questions, he said that he had lost by death the best and kindest friend that ever man had - a friend who for lang syne's sake had, out of scanty means, aided him liberally, uttering no word of reproach, and bearing with him after all other friends were dead or had fallen away from him.
    From this time Brown slept at the W---- Street Chambers regularly, rather to the surprise of the other lodgers, who were quick to detect how dreadfully "hard up" he was. As a matter of fact, the Deputy, though  [-341-] he deemed it prudent to "keep it dark," let him have his nightly lodging without payment, making up the money out of his own pocket. That the hand of death was upon the man, that it would be but a short time that he would need any earthly help, had been evident to the Deputy at once. He had tried to induce the forlorn and stricken outcast to enter the workhouse., but that Brown had absolutely refused to do. That, he said, would raise a question of his parochial "settlement," would involve his being called upon to make personal and family disclosures, which he would rather die in the streets than make under the circumstances.
    But the Deputy was not the man to let him die in the street; he gave him shelter, and did what was in his power to alleviate his sufferings. The night before he died he burst a blood-vessel during a violent fit of coughing. In the morning he was removed to the workhouse infirmary, making no objection then, as he knew that the time for official investigation as to his antecedents was past, that he was being taken there simply to die. He did die there, as we have seen; died not without heavenly hope or human pity. He died unknown, however, was buried as John Brown, and consigned to a pauper's grave.
    Thanks to the Deputy-General, his funeral was not that of a pauper. It did not lack such degree of pomp and circumstance as usually marks the funerals of the non-pauper poor, while the little group of poverty-stricken mourners who assembled to see him laid to his last earthly rest were sincere in paying that last mark of respect to his memory. On the day before the funeral I was shown the two wreaths that were to be placed upon his coffin.  [-342-] They were simple wreaths enough, noticeable only for the characteristic lines written upon time card attached to one of them, which ran
        "Dear old Jack was a real good sort
            We all loved him ,and so we ought."
    It was not worth the while of the parochial authorities to make any claim to the belongings of the dead man. They consisted of a few old clothes, so ragged and worn as to be unpawnable. On turning out the pockets of them, all that the Deputy found was a number of "run out" pawn-tickets, and a faded photographic portrait of a young man, in all probability the friend of whom Brown had spoken, for on the margin of it he had written
            "Faithful despite of my fall
        Sad when the world seemed over-sweet, sweet when the
            world turned to gall."
    The story of such a broken and wasted life as this is wondrous pitiful, and most pitiful in that it is by no means a solitary story of its kind.
    The submerged tenth are not all native and to the manner born. In their ranks are numbers of men and women who - some through their own fault, but more through sheer misfortune - have sunk to the point of submergence, have fallen or been drawn into the social deeps from higher levels. Theirs are perhaps the hardest lives even among the bitterly hard lives of the submerged generally. And when for them "death comes with friendly call," it is not always that even at the last they meet with the kindness that befell the unit of the submerged whose story has been told here.