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THE BEGGAR'S CHILDREN - SCENE IN A METROPOLITAN POLICE STATION.
THE real work of the night had not yet commenced, for it was
comparatively early, about nine o'clock.
It was on a Saturday night in winter, and the neighbouring thoroughfares were thronged with working people going to market, or taking their pleasure. But the station to which I had occasion to go being situate in a quiet, gloomy street, had outside all the appearance of being only used as police barracks. There were the usual notices near the door, offering a reward of £100 for a murderer, £50 for somebody else of less distinguished villany, and so on. And while I was standing in the waiting-room inside, I observed a number of other notices of persons "wanted," the handbills being accompanied in many instances with minute descriptions of the said persons, their age, height, build, complexion, carriage, the colour of their eyes, the shape of the nose, and any mark by which they might be distinguished.
[-195-] In some cases the notice was illustrated with a photograph of the person in whose career the police were so much interested. Some of these photographs looked as if their originals had belonged to a respectable class, and been in a good position, as indeed they had. Some of them actually smiled; with a smile which seemed to say, "Don't you admire me?" They were probably first taken in order to be given to admirers, at a time when it was but little suspected to what use they would be turned. They were vivid illustrations of what our French neighbours call "the irony of destiny."
But my attention was soon attracted by another picture, of far greater interest than those portraits of persons wanted; a living picture, with several figures in it; a very sad picture, it must be confessed, but not without its light and shade, though standing on a very dark background.
To reproduce it in a pen-and-ink sketch, or even to give anything like a vivid idea of the reality, would be impossible. But try to picture it to yourself; and, first of all, picture to yourself an almost empty room, something like the waiting- room (third class) at a railway station. There is a bright fire in the grate but the only furniture in the room is a plain deal bench, the walls near the fire-place being embellished with the photographs of thieves and [-196-] murderers, and with extracts from the Hue and Cry, already noticed.
Adjoining this entrance-hall or waiting-room is the inspector's office, which is only partially separated from it on one side by a partition, the upper part of which is made of glass, so that the inspector can see from his sanctum all that is going on in the waiting-room, while those who are in the waiting- room can see equally well all that is going on immediately in front of the inspector's bureau.
It is there, in front of the bureau, that prisoners are first taken to have the charge entered. The inspector on duty stands behind a sort of shop counter, and his customers are brought up to the counter by the constable who may have apprehended them, and who acts upon the occasion as shop-walker - the gentleman, you know, who conducts you to the glove department. It is there also that the prisoners are searched when they are first taken to the station; at any rate, they were searching a man there while I was standing in the outer room, waiting to see the inspector. And "a precious nice job" they had of it too, as a policeman remarked to me at the time.
He was one of the roughest-looking men I have ever seen, and I have seen a few very rough ones in my time. Perhaps he was more to be pitied than blamed for his sordid mien; but his villanous coun-[-197-]tenance was certainly of his own making, the index of his life; for nature never turned out anything half so repulsive. It was not that he had bad features. His face had not been originally cast in a bad mould, but he had a bad expression. Vice and depravity were stamped upon every lineament of his face. He certainly looked, when I saw him, more like an incarnate fiend than a human being. As for his language, that was simply indescribable.
He did not actually strike the searcher - he was too cunning for that; but while the officer was searching him, the prisoner poured upon his devoted head a continuous volley of the lowest, the filthiest abuse that could possibly be conceived in the worst dens of infamy. He blasphemed till he was positively black in the face, or at least, looked so to me. Meanwhile, the searcher went on calmly with his work, making no reply, but turning time man's pockets out one after the other, and feeling every crevice of his dirty garments. The inspector, equally calm, stood behind the counter making notes.
This formed the background of the picture, and a very dark Rembrandt-like background it was too, lit up only with flashes of the fiercest blasphemy. But the foreground was somewhat different, though equally painful.
By the "foreground," I mean the waiting-room in which I myself was standing. On the wooden bench [-198-] sat a woman of the poorest order. She might have been of any age between twenty and fifty; it was impossible to guess from her face, which was unnaturally thin and careworn. Her clothes, which appeared to be very scant, were of the most sordid description, and harmonised well with her dolorous face, and the dark background. The palm of her right hand was pressed against her right cheek, while her right elbow rested in the palm of her left hand. In this posture she continuously swayed her body to and fro, ever and anon uttering the most doleful plaints.
She was the wife of the prisoner who was being searched, and was herself a prisoner, waiting to be searched.
There was food enough for speculation in these two figures, but the picture is only as yet half complete.
In the middle of the room, in front of the woman, and within sight of the man who is blaspheming and being searched at the same time, are three little children-three babies I may call them-playing merrily at a game which they have improvised with two or three round stones. They are bowling the stones from one to the other, with as much delight as if they were in possession of the most precious toys; and they evidently enjoy the game as much as it is possible for children to enjoy any game. And yet they are the children of those two prisoners, [-199-] of the ruffian who is blaspheming with rage within sight and hearing of them, and of the woman who is so piteously moaning at their side.
The poor children seem to be quite unconscious of the position of their parents, and laugh and shout until the grim place rings with their merriment, The police station, probably appears to them the grandest place they have ever visited, and the room in which they are now playing the nicest room in the world. As for the blasphemous raving of the father, and the sorrowful moaning of the mother, it is to be feared that the children may have been so accustomed to such timings from their birth, that nothing shocks them. They have been nursed in a strange nursery, where dirt and misery are the nursemaids, or nursery governesses, educating little children to sin and crime. The only preparatory school they are acquainted with is that school where candidates are prepared for gaols and convict prisons. The language most familiar to their infant minds consists mostly of oaths and curses. Their bellies are often pinched with hunger, and other parts of their little bodies are probably often pinched by hard fingers to make them cry. Those smooth, round stones are possibly the most precious toys they have ever had. The police station is a palace to them. The constable to whom I have been speaking, and who speaks kindly and gently to the children, is to [-200-] them a friend, a grand gentleman, a prince. Evidently the whole thing is to them a great treat. And they make much of it while it lasts, but that is not long. The father is at last disposed of, though he has given the police an immense deal of trouble, and lie is conducted to a cell, cursing fiercely as he goes. But not a look does he cast behind him towards his forlorn wife and children, lie has no word of farewell for them, nor do they seem to miss him when he is gone.
And now came the turn of the mother, who had to undergo the same ordeal at the hands of the female searcher. Hitherto the children's minds have been so absorbed in their game, that they have not noticed what has been going on around them ; or, if they have noticed it, have not cared. But no sooner does the mother rise from her seat, in obedience to the order of the constable, than the poor children are struck with alarm, and at once forget their play. They run to their mother's side and cling to her skirts like young lambs who are suddenly frightened at the approach of a wolf, and when the policeman by gentle means seeks to detain them while the mother is leaving the room, they begin to cry and scream in the most piteous manner.
The scene now became so painful that I wished I had not been a witness of it. I asked the constable to whom I had already spoken whether the mother [-201-] would also be locked up, and if so, what would become of the poor little children ? "Oh yes," replied he, "the mother will certainly be kept in custody at least till Monday; and as for the children, they will be taken to the workhouse."
"Let me kiss them," sobbed the miserable woman, taking them up one by one in her arms and mingling her tears with those of her children ; "let me kiss them before I go. O my children! mother is going to be taken away from you and locked up in a dark hole, and all for trying to get you a bit of bread."
"O mother, mother, mother!" cried the children, clinging to her, "don't leave us, don't let them take you away-oh, don't, don't, don't!"
But the police were inexorable. At first they tried to coax the children away by telling them that their mother should come back to them; but as coaxing proved of no avail, they were obliged to use a little gentle force, and the mother was soon dexterously hidden from their sight. The poor children, however, only screamed the more loudly,- "Mother, mother, mother, come back, come back, come back!"
But the mother came not back, and the desolate children were soon taken away to the workhouse under the charge of two sturdy policemen. Long after they left, however, I could hear, or fancied that I could still hear, their heartrending cry- "Mother, mother, mother!"