Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 16 - The Respectable Poor - Old Mr. Lovepet and his Wife

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CHAPTER XVI.

THE RESPECTABLE POOR - OLD MR. LOVEPET AND HIS WIFE.

IT is a cold wet day in the middle of winter, and the streets in the lower part of St. Giles's, never very clean, are even worse than usual to cross. For "crossings" and crossing-sweepers are unknown in this district. Many crossing-sweepers, it is true, reside in this neighbourhood; but then they are only known here in their private capacity, and when spoken of by their acquaintances they would only be alluded to in a vague sort of way, as in such phrases as "Me and another gentleman;"  "A gentleman I sometimes meets of a hevenin';" "A gentleman belonging to the same club as me;" or "The gentleman livin' in the top floor back;" or "The gentleman as rents the back kitchen" (i.e., the back cellar); and so on, as the case may be, but always the word "gentleman;" while if he is married, you may be sure his wife will invariably be spoken of by her friends as a "lady." The poor of St. Giles's are extremely particular on this point, [-97-] therefore, I hope no one will run away with the idea that this is a place wanting in culture and refinement, or entirely without sweetness and light. I know a scavenger who is very fond of reading poetry; and if his room has neither sweetness nor light, that is not his fault, but the fault of the room; for the man must have both sweetness and light in his soul, otherwise he would not be fond of poetry. But I admit that the streets of St. Giles's have no sweetness, and that it would be practically impossible to give them sweetness, even if all the scavengers in London were set to work here. For the streets would be served like the steps of the mission house, respecting which a faithful old servant has so often said to her mistress: "It's not a bit of use me washing them, ma'am, for they're no sooner washed than they are again wuss than ever."
    That would, therefore, in itself be a good reason for never seeing a crossing-sweeper at work here. For a good crossing-sweeper must take a pride in keeping his crossing nice and clean; and were he to attempt to do such an impossible thing in St. Giles's, he would soon die of a broken heart, if he did not first die of a broken skull. Therefore, although they do not disdain to reside here in their capacity of private gentlemen, crossing sweepers prudently go as far away as possible to ply their [-98-] profession. Therefore, it is hardly to be wondered at if the streets are never clean, or if in wet weather they are as dangerous to cross as an Irish bog.
    Look at that old man now coming out of a house in Great Wild Street. He has turned the age of threescore years and ten. But he still works hard at his trade of bridle-cutter, and manages, by dint of rising early and working late, to support his aged wife and himself in comfort and respectability, as far as it is possible to maintain respectability in the midst of such unfavourable surroundings.
    He is known amongst his neighbours as "old Mr. Lovepet," for reasons which shall hereafter be explained. We must now follow him on the errand on which he is going, which is to order coals at the coal shop, facing Great Wild Street, between Vere Street and Stanhope Street.
    He has not many steps to go, even if the whole distance be measured between the house in which he lives and the place to which he is going. But short as the distance is, it is not altogether an easy journey to a man of seventy, afflicted with rheumatism and overworked. For before he can reach the coal shop, Mr. Lovepet has to cross the road at a point which would be extremely dangerous to persons of any age, if there was much traffic there. Even as it is, any one who has to cross the road at that [-99-] point has to keep a sharp look-out, on account of the different streets that converge towards that one spot, and the irregularities peculiar to it.
    Old Mr. Lovepet is neither halt nor lame, neither palsied nor blind; but neither is he as active as he once was. lie is, perhaps, what would be called "a little shaky on his legs," and has to be somewhat careful in crossing the streets of London.
    He is now as careful as a man could possibly be. Before leaving the pavement at the corner of Great Wild Street and Sardinia Street, he looks cautiously up and down and round about, to assure himself that there is no danger in the way. Then, finding that there is not a single vehicle of any kind coming that way, he begins to cross the road. But while he is still in the middle of the road, a hansom cab whirls round the Corner from one of the neighbouring streets, and comes dashing along at a break-neck pace towards the spot where time old man is crossing over. Still, if the cab takes the proper side of the road, there can be no danger, for old Mr. Lovepet is now more than half-way across. But as there are no other vehicles in sight, the driver is careless, and keeps on the off-side. The old man, however, quickens his steps, and by a great effort manages to plant his feet on the kerbstone just as the horse's head approaches the line at which the aged pedestrian has crossed the road. But the driver, not content with [-100-] possession of the off-side, drives his horse in such a manner that at that corner the off-wheel of the cab is actually in the gutter and shaving the kerb-stone. The consequence is that one of the shafts catches the old man's coat and drags him under the horse's feet. The horse then kicks him under the cab, which passes over him, leaving the poor old man prostrate in the mud. And although he is not killed on the spot, it is soon evident that he has been sorely hurt, for the blood is freely flowing down his boots, and forms a pool around him.
    It is suggested that he should at once be conveyed to King's College Hospital, which is close at hand. But before he is removed, his aged wife appears on the scene, and insists upon his being taken home; which is accordingly done.
    When the club doctor arrives, and has made his examination of the patient, the actual injuries caused by the accident are found to be of a less serious character than might have been anticipated. But to an old man of seventy the mere shock and loss of blood might prove fatal; and so, for some days, old Mr. Lovepet lies in a very critical state, and is the object of much anxiety to his wife and all who care for him.
    And all who care for him I This phrase, if allowed to stand, may in this case be somewhat misleading. And yet I do not like to strike it out, [-101-] because it suggests a subject for speculation, which it may not be unprofitable to investigate. Let us therefore pause for a moment, and see how many they are who arc likely to care for this poor old man at this time of sore trial, when, if ever a man stood in need of friends to comfort and cheer him, he most surely does.
    And, first of all, I must be allowed to mention that time subject of these remarks and his aged wife, although poor and living in the slums, are a thoroughly respectable old couple. To verify this statement you have nothing to do but to enter their room and look around you. You will then see at a glance that in claiming for them the right to be classed amongst the "respectable," I am only doing them justice.
    The house in which they live is one of the worst in Great Wild Street; which is saying a good deal. Not only are the windows broken, and the walls of the passages and staircase oozing with dirt, but the drains are out of order, insomuch that the staircase and passages are saturated with a stench strong enough to knock a horse down.
    But in this dreary house there is one room which would do credit to people of any rank, so far as cleanliness and comfort are concerned ; and that is the room occupied by that worthy old couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lovepet. It is the front room on the second [-102-] floor; and being large and well lighted, it has the makings of a good room. Even as it is, it is not altogether unattractive; for the tenants have not only whitened the ceiling and papered the walls, but they have also done much to improve the rotten flooring by stopping up all the holes and covering them with pieces of oilcloth carefully nailed down. Then the furniture is all very nice of its kind; and there are sonic curious ornaments about the room, such as stuffed pets in glass cases. Amongst these are two dogs and a cat, each of which has a remarkable history of its own.
    But, for some days after the accident, my mind is occupied with thoughts of too serious a character to allow me to devote any attention to these things. Poor old Mr. Lovepet is lying prostrate on his bed, and it is for some time very doubtful whether he will ever recover or not. It is easy to see at a glance, however, that this aged couple have not always lived in such humble style; and when the patient begins to get better, his wife becomes more and more communicative, and I glean from her observations many interesting facts relating to their past history.
    They have never had any children of their own; but they have brought up two orphan nephews, whom they adopted in infancy; and they have been deserted by both. They have also reared many other pets, principally of the canine and feline species, whom [-103-] they rescued as puppies or kittens from cruel persecution and untimely death. One of the stuffed dogs, for instance, was adopted by them when only a blind puppy, a few days old, and when, having just lost its mother, it was in imminent danger of dying, and was already given up for as good as dead. But this good Samaritan of a woman had compassion on the orphan puppy, as she had had compassion on the orphan children; and she bethought her of a baby's feeding-bottle, and resolved to try what that would do for the poor little thing. And under her generous treatment it not only revived, but grew up to be a somewhat troublesome dog! For although in its outward form it inherited the silky smoothness of its dam, a spaniel, in its natural disposition it strongly resembled its sire, a bull-dog; and it manifested such a liking for the calf of the human leg, that one day it got its spine broken by the but-end of a whip, and died.
    The histories of all the other pets are equally remarkable, and equally pathetic; but I have neither space nor time to recount them, although, to please the dear old lady and her husband, who attended to her narratives with the greatest interest, I was obliged to find time to listen to them. It is my sorrowful duty, however, to add, that, of all their former pets, not one remains to console them in their old age. The nephews, whom they adopted and treated as [-104-] their own children, deserted them many years ago, after having by their recklessness and prodigality reduced the old people from a state of comparative affluence to poverty, if not to actual want.
    As for the other adopted members of their family, they all appear to have met with violent deaths, some of them, like their master, having been run over by cabs.
    Old Mr. Lovepet had at one time a flourishing business of his own, and in the days of his prosperity was surrounded by many friends. But when the days of adversity came upon them, all their friends disappeared with their pets, though for different reasons; and now at the age of threescore years and ten, they are quite alone in the world. All that they have to maintain them at the present moment is a temporary allowance of twelve shillings a week from a benefit club, out of which they have to pay five shillings for rent. Mrs. Lovepet has therefore been unable to pay for any help in nursing her husband, or in any other work. She has had to sit up with him day and night, and to perform all those arduous duties that usually devolve upon a hospital nurse in such a case. She has, moreover, had to fetch his medicines, to procure food and to cook it; and at the same time she has had to do all the washing and other household work with her own hands. 
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And all these things, with many more which I have not enumerated, she has done well. The room has been kept as clean and tidy as a ward of the best kind of hospital; the aged patient has had every attention paid him by his nurse, and has been made more comfortable, and kept in more perfect quietude, than would have been possible in any hospital; and what is more, the dear old lady has managed to keep herself in the meanwhile as clean and tidy as her patient and her room.
    But what of the future which looms before this poor old couple? They have never as yet been actually driven to appeal for charity. But even supposing this old man recovers, it is hardly to be expected that he will again be able to earn with his own hands enough to support himself and his aged wife in comfort, and it is quite certain that he will not be able to do so for any length of time. What are they to do then? Go into the workhouse ?