Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XIV - The Buckinghamshire Girl

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AFTER the service I have described at the Refuge, several days elapsed before I was able to visit it again. When I inquired of the matron what had become of her poor young county-woman, I found that she had left the Refuge on the Monday morning, and, although she had been offered shelter there for a week, she had not returned. 'I didn't expect she would, from the way she looked when she went out,' said the matron. 'Poor young thing! I can't help wondering where she is, though I do see so many as bad off that come and go God only knows where. Maybe, she's at the bottom of the river. I haven't seen anything about it in the papers, but the river drowns a many that the papers and the police know nothing about. I'm not a nervous woman, but I declare to you, sir, when I've been coming over London Bridge of a night, I've been afraid to look down into the water, for fear I [-143-] should see corpses with their eyes open. The lights on the river aren't nice to look at. Down they go, and shake as if they'd come to something in the dark they're frightened at.'
    The shifting scenes at a Refuge for the Destitute are the reverse of kaleidoscopic, but they are as bewildering to the memory. The muddy tide of misery flows in tonight, and obliterates the marks made by the tide of the night before. A year went by, and probably the matron as well as myself had forgotten the poor girl from Buckinghamshire, when she was recalled to my recollection by very painful circumstances in which I had to bear a part. One night in the end of November, or the beginning of December, I was returning from Wapping by Old Gravel Lane. As I reached the dock-bridge I saw a dim, white figure scrambling over it at the other end. I had just time to run and catch hold of a woman's dress - another moment, and she would have been in the water. She struggled fiercely; she very nearly leaped out of the flimsy skirt that came away from her waist in handfuls. 'Let go you -! What does it matter to you,' she howled, 'if I want to go to hell?' I managed, however, to pull the poor creature back, and to hold her arms behind her until a constable came down the lane to discover what the screaming was about. 'What's up?' he inquired. 'Robbing you, sir? Oh, going to jump over, was she? Those Highway girls are always at it, when they've had a drop too much. What makes em all come down here, I can't make out. You must come to the station-house and make the charge, [-144-] and appear at the court to-morrow, sir. Come along, my dear,' he added to the girl, clutching her above the elbow and pushing her before him, 'we'll find you a snugger bed than that.'
    The inspector-in-charge did not treat the case with the constable's levity; but he, too, seemed to look upon the attempted suicide as a matter of course. 'You see, sir,' he said, when the girl had been locked in her cell, 'it's startling to you, but we've so much of it. Those poor creatures - God knows I pity them, though they do give us no end of bother; can't get on without drink. It's impossible they should. The brazenest of women couldn't lead their life without it. And sometimes they can't get drink, and then they're miserable, and sometimes what they take only makes them miserabler. Anyway, the water's handy, and down they run screaming to make an end of it. It isn't many they've got to stop them.'
    In no case is it more emphatically true than in that of these lost creatures that the way of transgressors is hard. The miserable girl's face was distorted by frantic excitement - she bit and struggled like a maniac, as she was dragged and pushed towards her cell - she dashed herself against the door and howled in the same mad style when the key had been turned upon her.
    Next morning when she stood in the dock, bare-headed and bare-necked, and with her unseasonably flimsy dress hanging in crumpled tatters round her, she was an awfully lonely-looking object. Her excitement had passed, and she leaned on the greasily-grimy boarding of the dock, apparently utterly careless as to what might become of [-145-] her. The magistrate gave her the usual lecture on her 'sinful and criminal folly,' but he was a kind-hearted man, and was touched by her youth. Before committing her, he inquired whether she had not any friends who would take charge of her. (I had offered to do my best to get her into a Penitentiary, but thither she had sullenly refused to go.) When the magistrate made his suggestion, she woke up for an instant from her apathy. 'Friend's!' she exclaimed, in just the same tone of savagely-solitary satire which the Buckinghamshire girl had used. When I had seen the poor creature - her energy for physical resistance quite used up - obeying like a dog the officer's beck to leave the dock, I left the court, thinking much of her, and also of the poor girl of whom she had suddenly reminded me.
    What had become of that poor Buckinghamshire girl? Together with her personality, the matron's forebodings in reference to her came back to my recollection. So far as they related to death from starvation - perhaps even in the dark, cold, swiftly flowing river - I could not help sharing them; but what I remembered of the girl somehow disinclined me to believe that she could have attempted to stave off Death by forgetting that she was a woman.
    That winter she turned up again at the Refuge. Her former reserve and fierce defiance of Fate had vanished. She was thankful for what was done for her, and though once more brought down to the lowest rung of life's ladder, she was hopeful as to the future. She talked freely both to the matron and myself. I learnt her history, ac-[-146-]cording to her version of it, and the parts of it which I was able to test all proved to be accurate. I will relate it now.
    Her name was Winslow - Jane Winslow. She came from one of the quaintly named little Buckinghamshire villages. In the heart of East-End London, it was strange to hear her talking of that sleepy little place. Of course she gave no set description of it, but, putting together her little bits of local colour dashed in here and there, I could easily picture her old home - the old brown church begirt with green-and-grey holed beech trees; the red-and-purple brick parsonage, bossed with brown beehives and veiled with verdant vine and creamy clematis; the low black smithy, with its core of ruddy light, its roar of bellows, musical tinkle of hammers, and fringe of round-shouldered loungers heavily circulating the village news; the beamed thatched cottages of yellow plaster and grey rubble, with female gossips chatting and plaiting in the low doorways and against the flap-shutters - their fingers moving even faster than their tongues; the old-fashioned rick-surrounded farm-houses, with their old-fashioned garden-jumbles of fruits and flowers and vegetables, grassy, crooked-boughed orchards, and barns and cartlodges with yard-wide patches of moss upon their thatch, and a rich arabesque of green and white and orange lichen on their warped, gaping weatherboards. Such a village, surrounded with quiet corn-fields, pastures, and dark  fallows, deep fragrant woods, and hedges laced with dog-rose, and honey-suckle, and bellbind, we are apt to look upon as an island of purity and peace:-
[-147-] This is a place, you say, exempt from ill,
                A paradise, where, all the loitering day,
            Enamoured pigeons coo upon the roof,
                Where children ever play.'
Of course this is nonsense. 'Alas!' as the poet adds,
                     Time's webs are rotten, warp and woof;
                Rotten his cloth of gold, his coarsest wear;
            Here black-eyed Richard ruins red-cheeked Moll,
                Indifferent as a lord to her despair.'
    In country hamlets, as well as the Tower Hamlets, passions rage with bestial ferocity, and petty grudges are cherished in the country with a spitefully persistent rancour, which the life of a large city seldom allows time for. In the country, as well as in our town-slums, there is much of the misery that springs from over-crowded dwellings, as well as from lack of food and clothing. Wretched as is the physical, mental, and moral condition of our city waifs, there are counties in England in which the average agricultural labourer is weaker in body than the average 'City Arab,' far less sharp-witted, and little, if at all, better-moralled. But still the country is the country: those who live in it can breathe sweet air, and see sweet sights, and hear sweet sounds, that constitute a literal 'heaven on earth' when contrasted with the surroundings of the dwellers in London slums. The Refuge, in spite of its warmth and comparative cleanliness, was still a gaunt-looking place, crowded with gaunt-looking objects, in the very centre of a London slum; and it was strange, I repeat, to get, so to speak, a whiff from summer bean-fields in that wintry barrack, as Jane told of her life [-148-] in the country. The greater part of it seemed to have been a peaceful one. Whilst still a child, she lost her mother; but she was not old enough then to understand what a loss that is, and yet soon became old enough to appreciate the importance of keeping her father's house and looking after her little brothers and sisters. The father was a steady man, in regular work, end his wages, together with his children's plait-earnings, kept his family in cottage comfort. Jane soon managed all domestic matters, and enjoyed the deferential affection which a wifeless father and motherless brothers and sisters are apt to give to the eldest daughter of a family so bereft. But just when Jane was blooming into womanhood John Winslow married again, and his second wife was a vixen, who began to teach her eldest step-daughter 'her place' as soon as they came back from church on the wedding-day. For a week or two there were constant wranglings in the cottage that had been so quiet. John was an easy-going man, who detested rows. He loved his new wife, but he also loved his old wife's daughter, who had been the real second mother to his younger children. He tried to restore peace, but he was afraid to exercise authority over either litigant, and so his feeble efforts only made confusion worse confounded. Whilst he was away at work one day, the step-mother struck Jane because she had interfered to save her youngest sister from a smacking.
    'I didn't strike her back,' said Jane, but I couldn't stand that. I put on my bonnet and shawl, and put my best gown and a thing or two more into a bag, and then [-149-] I come out and said to her, "I'm going to make a home for myself and them as belongs to me. If you treat 'em cruel, mother'll come out of the church-yard and haunt ye. Poor father! I should ha' liked to bid him goodbye, but it don't matter much - he cares more for you than he does for me now." "Of course he does, you brazen hussy," says she. "Why ain't you off? I thought you was in a hurry just now. I shall be glad enough to see your back - a good riddance of bad rubbish. Why don't you go and make your fortun'? But you'll soon be coming back whining," says she. "I'll never set foot in this house again whilst you're in it," said I; and then I gave the little ones a kiss all round, and out I ran. When I got outside the garden-gate I saw the carrier's cart coming down the lane; so I waited for it, and rode into Buckingham. I'd my money with me - enough for that, and to pay my fare up to London, and p'r'aps to keep me for a week or two when I got there. The gleaners was in the fields, and after a bit I got the carrier to stop, so that I might pick up a handful o' ears for a keepsake like. I'd been very happy at home till that woman came to it, and so I wanted something to make me feel I still belonged to it somehow.'
    Jane had looked forward to London with hope, but when she entered it her heart sank. How could all those people, swarming about like ants, get a living? The vast majority of them were very unlike the fine thriving folks she had fancied all Londoners must be. And if they could somehow manage to rub on, because they knew the ways of the place, how was she, born and bred in a little [-150-] Buckinghamshire village, and without a single friend amongst all those thousands to speak a good word for her, to squeeze her way into work?
    When her money was exhausted, and still she found no work, Jane was sorely perplexed. In her country ignorance she had applied for plaiting-work in bonnet-shops, and had been laughed at for her pains. She had applied, also, at hiring-places for servants, but since she had no one to refer to for a character, she could not obtain a place. It would have been easy enough for her to get a character, if she had referred to the rector of her parish, but she was obstinately bent on keeping her stepmother in ignorance of her whereabouts until, without anybody's aid, she had made a home in which she could gather together, at any rate, her brothers and sisters. When all her clothes, except what she wore, were gone, she did obtain a servant's place - of the kind that might be expected under such circumstances. Several such places she took and threw up very speedily. Although her employers did not trouble themselves about getting a character with their servants, Jane was still very proud of hers, and self-respect - heroically honest, under the circumstances - made her risk starvation again and again rather than risk that. The last situation she had held before she first came to the Refuge was the worst of all. She had very soon discovered that it was not for a domestic servant she had been hired. She instantly left the house of sin, and a few nights afterwards made her appearance at the Refuge in the miserable plight and yet defiant mood I have already described. She thought that [-151-] she did well to be angry - that God was unjust in allowing her to be reduced to such straits. 'I thought it was hard,' to quote her own words, 'that I should have to shift about so, as if I was worth nothing - me as had always tried so to behave - I was real downright self- righteous in them days. If anybody had called me a sinner then, I do believe I should have struck 'em. I couldn't abide your talk, sir, because you made out as if, somehow, I must be to blame after all. But I know better now, because I've got to love Him that came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'
    When Jane left the Refuge oh the Monday morning, she was literally desperate. She wandered aimlessly, with no hope except that the cold might soon finish her. In the early dusk of the winter afternoon she fell, fainting, on a threshold in one of the side-streets leading out of Leman Street. It was the threshold of a once-private house that had been converted into a slop-maker's warehouse and workrooms. Some of the out-door women, coming back with work, found Jane lying on the threshold, carried her in to the nearest fire, and told their employer of her. He gave her hot coffee and bread and a night's lodging, and in the morning offered to give her work. The wages he named were very small, but Jane jumped at them as if they were a fortune. It must be remembered, too, that, like most plaiting-girls of her time, she knew next to nothing of needlework; and novices, especially when there is a glut of experts, cannot reasonably expect experts' wages for their work. She soon grew an expert, however, in such rough needlework as was [-152-] needed there. The pay, even then, was only just enough to keep soul and body together; but she was very proud of it, because it made her feel independent. At first she worked at the warehouse, but the talk she heard there was so distasteful to her - the fallen amongst her fellow-workers taking a fiendish delight in striving to reduce their unfallen companions to their own level - that Jane soon stipulated for permission to do her work in the bare garret which she tenanted. There are people in the world who do not like to be reminded that life is not so comfortable for all as - perchance, from infinitesimal merit of their own - they find it; that all girls are not as pure and untempted as their daughters, running their little round of grooved and fenced-in 'respectability.' At the risk of offending such people-blinking their eyes at Truth over their cosy fires - I must say that Jane had to mix every day with girls who had lost their purity, and that her poverty sorely tempted her to follow their example. There was one girl, lodging in the same house, who night after night came up to Jane's room, attired in tawdry finery; scoffed at her dimly candle-lit toil, and tried hard to persuade her to sell her good looks in open market. I write plainly, because it seems to me childish - in no child-like sense - to pretend to ignore notoriously patent facts. This same fallen girl, I must add, was the kindest friend Jane had for months. She was not a constant friend. She often abused Jane. She was often dead-drunk, drunkenly revelling, or madly raging, when Jane was in great extremity - even the poor slop-work being intermittent. But still this miserable devil-possessed Magdalen had a 'touch of God' left in her, and [-153-] ever and anon saved Jane from starving, when purer people had left her to shift for herself. Just because of the multitudinous charities of London - absurdly overlapping charities - the number of deserving, unbegging objects for charity who pine unaided in London, is disgraceful (to say nothing of other considerations) to the reputation for keen common sense, 'business-like practicality,' on which Londoners pride themselves. 'To him who hath shall be given,' is the sentence which far too many London charities might take as a damnatorily appropriate motto.
    Her fellow-lodger's kindness had far more weight with Jane than her scoffs; but Jane resisted both. 'I don't remember mother much,' she said to the matron,  'but I felt as if she'd turn in her grave if I went the way that poor girl wanted me to go - and then there was my little sisters I'd bragged I'd make a home for.'
    But a more potent influence than the memory of her dead mother and her living 'little ones' ere long flowed in on Jane. One Sunday evening, foot-sore and heart- sore, she turned into a Methodist chapel. There she learnt the sad news that all are sinners - the glad news that all have a Saviour from their sins. When she told me of her chapel-going I must own that I felt grieved she had not learnt that inestimable lesson from church teaching instead of sectaries'; but the half-mean, half-filial feeling of jealousy was hurried away and drowned before and beneath the gush of joy with which the poor, half-starving girl repeated these verses from her new hymn-book:-
    [-154-] 'O for a thousand tongues to sing
        My great Redeemer's praise,
    The glories of my God and King,
        The triumphs of his grace!

    'Jesus ! the name that charms our fears,
        That bids our sorrows cease;
    Tis music in the sinner's ears,
        Tis life, and health, and peace.

    'He speaks - and, listening to his voice,
        New life the dead receive
    The mournful, broken leans rejoice,
        The humble poor believe.

    'See all your sins on Jesus laid:
        The Lamb of God was slain:
    His soul was once an offering made
        For every soul of man.'

    Jane stayed at the Refuge for about a week, and when she left the matron cried as if she were losing a child. 'Oh, how I wish I was coming with you!' sobbed Mrs Wendover. 'The country must look so beautiful this fine morning.'
    I had written to the rector of the Buckinghamshire village, and he had written bask to say that the stepmother was dead, and that John Winslow would be most thankful if Jane would again become the mistress of his home. 'I thank you kindly, sir,' said Jane, as she was starting from London, 'and Mrs Wendover, and all that have been good to me. If you should ever come across that poor girl - 'Liza Simmons is her name - you'll do what you can for her, won't ye, sir? She was very, very good to me, poor girl!'