[back to main menu for this book]
A FAMILY OF OUTCASTS.
I HAVE just returned home from a scene of such heart-rending misery that I
know not how to begin to describe it. When I tried to relate it to my wife at
the tea-table, it not only made her weep, but I also broke down, and was obliged
to change the subject before I had got half way through my story.
What makes these scenes of misery to me so trying is this. I am not in the position of an artist or an author going about for the purpose of making sketches; or even of a surgeon dissecting a corpse. With them art or science so absorbs the mind that it enables them to contemplate the most frightful ravages caused by poverty or disease, or both combined, without being affected by them. And after all they are only able to make superficial, and consequently very imperfect sketches (I mean the artist and the author), for they are unable to penetrate below the surface. They can know but little or nothing of the inner domestic life of the people.
[-59-] For even the poor, when they are being interviewed, must be aware of the fact, and can hardly be expected to disclose their secrets or to show themselves in their natural colours to strangers. But to live amongst the poor in the slums is a far different thing. One has no longer occasion to go in quest of startling scenes or of startling events ; they thrust themselves upon one's notice every day of one's life. And living as I do amongst the poor as their clergyman and sympathising friend, I have to listen almost every day to the history of some blighted life, and to tales of suffering and woe that make one's blood run cold. For it is not only the people of my own church, or of my own communion, that come to me or send for me in their distress, but people of every religion and of no religion - Anglicans, Dissenters, Roman Catholics, and Secularists; also people of different nationalities - English, Irish, German, and French.
And then in the life dramas that are day after day acted around me, outside the walls of Drury lane Theatre, I have frequently not only to be a spectator but to take a prominent part. Either I find myself by accident in the midst of the fray, or I am impelled by a sense of duty to rush upon the scene of action, or it may be I am summoned thither in the night by messengers who speak in bated breath, and who will take no denial. The door of the [-60-] mission house is battered, and the big bell rings as if it were intended to arouse the dead. And when I open the door, I behold at the threshold white faces, with dishevelled hair and wild staring eyes; and a cold clammy hand seizes mine with iron grip, and a voice exclaims in husky tones, -
"Come! come! oh, come at once with us! The death-struggle has already begun, and there is not a moment to lose - come!"
Then, perhaps without knowing who the messengers may be, or where they come from, I snatch up my hat and hasten away with them through the dimly lighted streets, now deserted and still as a graveyard, only that I hear the rain beating against the window panes and the winds moaning upon the house-tops and in the dark passages on either side.
Then, perhaps, I find myself led, as it were blindfold, through some unknown alley, outside the bounds of my own district, through narrow lanes and fetid courts, until at last we arrive in front of some house at which the messengers stop.
The door of the house is then opened, and as soon as we are inside it is again closed; and I am led by the hand through dark corridors and up dark narrow staircases to some remote garret, or it may be down into mysterious depths underground.
And then I have to take a part in the last act of [-61-] the tragedy, and to wait until the curtain drops and the chief actor in the drama has disappeared from the stage of life-for ever.
But death-scenes, though always sad, and sometimes very dreadful, are not more painful than some of those other scenes in which the living are doomed to live on in their misery, and we are forced to be witnesses of that misery without the means of alleviating it, or while all the efforts we make to alleviate it seem to fail. This is the real trial that tries a man's strength and saps the hope out of his heart, until the heart is ready to break. This is the trial that tries his faith; and if his faith does not grow stronger under the trial, it will be shattered and give place to despair.
It is a cold wet night in January; and again I find myself in Great Wild Street on my way home. The road and the pavements are covered with mud, and the bitter winds that sweep up and down the street and in and out of its passages and courts are loaded with fog and sleet. Even the hardy folk who are usually to be seen, in all seasons and at all hours, sitting upon the door-steps, or loitering at the street corners, have now disappeared, and Great Wild Street is almost deserted. Almost, but not quite; for in front of a small oil shop, which is still open, four or five little children, bare-footed, bare-headed, half-naked, and begrimed with dirt, are apparently [-62-] amusing themselves with a heap of rubbish which has been emptied from the shop into the gutter. But on closer inspection it becomes evident that they are not indulging in play; their faces are too earnest, too eager, too sad for that. They plunge their tiny fists into the heap of rubbish, and turn it over and over again until it becomes mixed with the mud. Still they go on turning it over and sifting it, like so many misers searching for a lost coin. Then suddenly a dash is made by all hands at once upon a particular spot, and there is a desperate scrimmage, which reminds one of the Rugby game. The biggest and strongest boy gains the victory and the prize, which is nothing more nor less than a large rotten carrot. Having wiped the ashes and the mud off the carrot by rubbing it against his trousers, the boy proceeds to devour it as if it were the most delicious fruit. But when he has consumed about one-half he relents, and holds the piece of carrot out in turns to each of the other children, telling them to take a bite, but holding the carrot in such a way between his fingers as to prevent their biting off more than a fixed quantity.
At a short distance from the children a man is standing on the pavement; and on approaching him I recognise in him a man whom I have often seen at some of my temperance meetings, though never at the services of the church. But he is so absorbed [-63-] in thought that, when I now stop and speak to him, he starts back like one who has been suddenly frightened.
"Beg pardon, sir," he says, touching his hat, "I didn't know you at first. The fact is, I'm not quite myself to-night."
"What is the matter?" I asked.
"Well, sir, to tell you the truth, there's a good deal the matter. I've been out o' work for some weeks, and that caused me to be a little back-'ard with the rent, and the agent he's been and took every stick of our furniture, and is a-turning of us all out into the street, only the missis she won't go, and refuses to budge from the room. But there's the poor children all out in the gutter, trying to pick up a morsel of crust or anything else they can find to eat, for they're pretty nigh famished. As for me, I didn't know what to do, or where to turn, so at last I went to the police station and asked the inspector whether the law allowed poor people and their children to be turned out of their room like dogs into the street on such a night as this, with no other place to go to; and he sent a constable with me to see the agent and to learn the rights of the case from him; and there they are together now inside the house, and I'm just waiting here till the constable comes out."
"If you have no objection," I said, " I should also [-64-] like to go in and learn the rights of the case from the agent. You don't object?"
"I shall be very thankful to you, sir, if you don't mind doing it. But the agent is a very hard man, especially "-
"Oh, never mind that, but come in with me, only don't say anything to make matters worse."
I found the agent talking with the police-constable, just inside the door of a house near which we were standing, the agent's office being in that house. Having wished them both a good evening, I at once told them my business and asked the agent for an explanation of his summary proceedings with respect to the man Hardup and his large family.
"Well, guv'nor," replied the agent, "that is soon explained. First of all, the man hasn't paid a farden of rent for the last three weeks, and I have, accordin' to law, seized his goods, although the whole lot ain't worth tuppence-ha'penny. Secondly, they keep the room so filthy dirty that it made even me sick to go into it, and if I was to let them stay, we should all soon be dead of fever. Thirdly, I gave him due notice to quit three weeks ago; and as they wouldn't go nohow, there was nothing left for me to do but to bring away their furniture and turn 'em out. But they may have the dirty rubbish back if they promise to go to-night, for it is no good to me or anybody else; it is only a nuisance."
[-65-] "But the man is a steady man, and has, I believe, for many years been a teetotaller. I can't at all understand how he and his family can be living in such degradation, or why he should be so badly off."
"Well, guv'nor," said the agent, "as far as the man's steadiness is concerned, I have nothing to say against it, for I believe he is himself a strict teetotaller. But you just go and look at his wife, if you haven't already seen her. She is the dirtiest, raggedest, slovenliest-looking woman I ever clapped eyes on, and I've seen a tidyish lot of the worstest specimens in all London, as you must know, since you live here. Why, that woman never gets up till twelve or one o'clock, and then she never thinks of washing the children. As for dressin' em, they've scarce got anything to put on; and they're allowed to run about the place like a lot o' little savages. And what is more, the law only allows two persons to live in that ere little room; and when I let the room to 'em, they said there was only two children; but there's eight on 'em altogether there, and if I was to let em stay, I should get myself into trouble; for there's a great outcry just at present about overcrowdin' of poor people, and all that sort o' thing; and quite right too, especially when they don't pay their rent."
At this point the man Hardup is called forward, [-66-] and asked by me what he has to say in answer to the charges made against him of overcrowding, not keeping his room clean, and refusing to quit after due notice had been given.
With respect to the first charge, he tries to make out that there are only seven of the family living in the room at present, as the eldest daughter has some kind of engagement away from home.
But the rent-collector stoutly maintains, that although the girl may be out all day, she still sleeps at home every night.
Regarding the dirty state of the room, Hardup has very little to say, except that he has himself on more than one occasion carried away an orange- box full of rubbish from under the bed.
As to refusing to go, he declares that he has been trying to get another room every day for the Jest three weeks, but failed. Nobody will take them in. Where, then, is he to go to with his large family? Can they live in the street?
The upshot of the conference is that, backed by the authoritative suggestions of the kind-hearted constable, I at last succeed in persuading the rent-collector to let the family have their few bits of broken furniture back, and remain in the room another week, on the understanding that Hardup will find another lodging by the end of that time.