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HERCULES AND HIS CHILDREN CRYING FOR BREAD.
ONE morning the agent of the Charity Organisation Society called upon me to
ask for any information I might be able to give him respecting two families in
my district, who had applied to the society for help. One of these cases was
that of the Hardup family, which I have already noticed; and I may as well
here mention that it was ultimately rejected by the society as a hopeless case,
only fit for the workhouse. But whether the woman will ever go into the
workhouse, or prefer to see her children die of starvation and cold outside,
remains yet to be seen. Hardup is of opinion that nothing will ever induce his
wife to enter the house, and that she would willingly see all her children
perish first. She has That five already through fever, and "if it be the
will of Providence to take the rest, why," &c.
This is how such people reason when their children die of cruel neglect. But is it right that the lives of these poor children should be allowed to [-88-] depend upon the caprice of a woman who shirks all the duties and responsibilities of a mother?
The second case is in many respects like unto the first. In short, this district is teeming with such cases. But notwithstanding the wearisome sameness which runs through most of them, I have thought it right to particularise a few in order to prove that I am not indulging in vague sentimental generalities. The houses and rooms in which these two cases occurred were visited by the agent of the Charity Organisation Society to whom I have already referred, and if necessary the facts can be verified by him.
Both cases occurred in Great Wild Street, within a few doors of each other, and at the same time. I suppress the proper names of the families for obvious reasons; but for the sake of convenience I shall call this second family by the name of Hardlines as I called the first by the name of Hardup.
The house in which the Hardlines family lodged was one which I had not been in the habit of visiting, because it was always full of Roman Catholics, who warmly resent any interference with their religious views, although I am generally received by them with great civility when, in my visitations from cellar to garret, I happen to call at their doors, without knowing of what religion they are, and explain to them the object of my call.
[-89-] But this particular house, although less familiar to me than most of the other houses in the same street, was photographed in my brain more vividly and more indelibly than any other building in the whole parish of St. Giles by a tragedy which was enacted in it only a few days after I began my work in the district. It was only a vulgar sort of tragedy, one that is repeated almost daily in different parts of London, and without any poetry or romance in it. A man had cut his wife's throat, and then, I think, his own, although I cannot now speak with certainty about the suicide, or attempt at suicide. But I well remember how horrified I felt when on glancing through the paper at breakfast one morning in January, I noticed a paragraph headed, "HORRIBLE MURDER IN GREAT WILD STREET!" Well do I also remember how I afterwards had occasion to go into Great Wild Street and to pass the house, which had by that time become the object of much morbid curiosity and idle gossip. Around and about the house were collected groups of idle men and women, absorbed in the discussion of the tragedy, some taking the part of the woman, others of the man, while immediately in front of the door two or three rough-looking men were engaged in loading or unloading a cart in which there was some furniture.
I remember speaking to one of those men and [-90-] asking him whether what I had read and heard about the house was really true or not, and the brutal tone in which lie replied, "Yes, quite true, if you mean the murder."
"How very dreadful it must be for the other people who live in the house!" I remarked.
"I don't see why it should matter to us," he said; "he is not the first man that has done for his wife, and she is not the first woman that has deserved it. Such things 'ave 'appened in most o' these 'ere 'ouses, at one time or other, and I for one don't intend lettin' myself be made uncomfortable by it ; I've already engaged the room where the murder took place, and in the course of a few days I shall move my few traps into it and go and live in the room. P'r'aps you think I'm a-jokin', master, but I ain't, I assure you."
More than a year has passed since the crime was perpetrated; but when I again stood in front of the house the other day in order to visit the Hardlines family, all the dismal particulars which had stamped the house upon my memory revived; and the scenes connected with the horrible tragedy seemed to rise up afresh before my eyes. The front of the house remained in exactly the same state as it was when I first saw it, the wall blackened with smoke, the windows opaque with mud and dirt, the panes broken and patched with paper and rags, and the [-91-] door-steps still bearing the imprint of the nails in the murderer's boots, as the steps had certainly not been washed or swept for many a long year.
Finding the front door wide open, as it always is, I walked in without ceremony, and inquired of some Irishwomen, whom I met in the passage, on what floor the family I was in search of lived. They stared at me with suspicious eyes, as if in doubt whether they should answer my question or not. One of them said she didn't think there was anybody of that name in the house. But after much hesitation, another of the women said, "I think perhaps you'll be after finding them at the top." So I walked upstairs without let or hindrance until I arrived at the topmost staircase, which, as usual, was very narrow. Here, however, I found my passage blocked by a fierce-looking old woman of the most unattractive Hibernian type.
"What is it ye want?" she asked in no friendly tones.
"I want to see a family named Hardlines," I replied.
"What is it ye want wid 'em?"
"May I first ask whether you are related to the family or not?"
"No, and they don't live here."
"Oh, but I happen to know that they do live here, in that front room just behind you."
[-92-] "Well, an' if they do, they're all out, which is the same thing."
At this point in the discussion a little girl, whom I took to be the old woman's granddaughter, ran out to the landing from the back garret, and touching my hand with her fingers, addressed me in friendly accents by my name, as poor children often do in the streets. Then the door of the front garret was suddenly opened, and a man looked out whom I rightly guessed to be Hardlines.
He was a big and rough-looking man, dressed in corduroy trousers and waistcoat, without a coat. But although he looked at me with some surprise, he did not hesitate to admit me into his room before learning the object of my visit. As soon as the door was closed upon us, however, I lost no time in explaining it. For it was not a pleasant room to be in, under any circumstances, on account of the sickening smell which pervaded it. Then the thought struck me that it might be the very room in which the horrible crime had been committed to which I have already alluded. Moreover, there was in the man's eyes a look of desperation which was anything but reassuring.
"I am the clergyman of this district-of the little mission church in Sardinia Street, and I have heard of your distress, and am come to see whether I can be of any service to you," I said.
[-93-] "But I am a Catholic, sir," the man replied, though without any asperity in his voice.
"Well, that will make no difference to me as far as my present business is concerned. Are you and your family really in want?"
By this time some half-dozen children had followed me into the room, and were now standing near us in a semicircle. To say that they were in rags and half naked would merely be to say that they resembled hundreds of other children in this neighbourhood; while, if I state that they all resembled their father in physique, it will be understood that they were born with the bodies and limbs of young gladiators. Such was indeed the case. And yet the faces of those children were as white as the paper on which I am writing. Not that they were as clean as the paper - far from it. They were dirty enough, but they were still white - white with the sickly pallor of hunger.
"Look here! sir," said Hardlines, "and look there if you have any doubt about our condition. This is our bed. Let me take up the things that are on it, and show you what we have to cover us, and what we have to lie upon. Here, look at this, if you please. This which I now am holding up in my hands, was once, as you see, a sack, but we have cut it open, and it is now our principal covering. No; here is another sack, and this has to serve us in t the [-94-] place of blankets. And here is something else. This bit of a rag which you see hanging in shreds was once a sheet, and this is all we have left in the way of sheets. And here, you see, is another sack cut open. This is what we lie on. And here is the bed. The sacking is so old and so rotten that it will hardly hold together, and so much of the flock has dropped out that there is hardly any of it left. And now, sir, just let me show you the children's bed. Here it is, sir!" and he pointed to an indescribable lair composed of rags and sacks strewn upon the bare floor in a corner.
"How long have you been in this state?" I asked.
"Not long, sir, not so very long; only about ten weeks; but that only makes it all the harder to bear. For fifteen years I was in the same situation as packer in the firm of ----- in the City. There I earned regular wages, enough to keep my family from want, though not enough to save anything for a rainy day; and I suppose the firm would scarce have kept me in their employ for fifteen years unless I had borne a pretty good character. But the day after Bank Holiday last August, me and a mate of mine stayed away from our work without leave; and for that we both got dismissed; and I've never been able to get regular employment since."
While he was showing me the beds, and relating [-93-] to me the cause of his trouble, the man's voice, which was naturally very strong, became weaker and weaker, until at last it sank almost into a whisper.
"I shouldn't care," he said after a pause, "if I myself was the only sufferer; but to see these poor children day after day suffering from want of bread - well, sir, I hope you'll excuse me, but I can't help it. The fact is, it begins to tell upon me too. I'm getting to feel rather low, and - and" -
Here he completely broke down and wept like a child; and I don't think I ever witnessed a more trying scene. Hercules struggling against his tears and vanquished by them, because his children's faces are pale from want of bread, and the father has no bread to give them!
As for me, I hardly know what I said or did. I only know that, for the moment, I longed for the trumpet of the archangel, that I might with it rend the clouds above us, and send up through the stars the cry that was straining my heart,-
"How long, O Lord, how long?"