Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XVI - Mr White and his Granddaughter

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HAVE spoken of the substantial old cottages that may be found here and there in the East End; the substantial old mansions that may also be found there are still more striking objects, but even more difficult to find, since the once open space in front of them has become covered with cheap brick - their carriage drives, perhaps, converted into arched alleys, swarming with wrangling sluts, and half-naked children dabbling in the dirt with a duck-like fondness. I remember such an old house that was pulled down a few years ago to make room for a tall pile of bald 'works.' It stood at the bottom of a lane between whose crowded hovels there was just room for a waggon to pass. The only vehicles of any kind that went down the lane were bound for Lockman and Nephew's, and when they got inside the great gates at the bottom of the lane there was plenty of room for them to turn in the pebbled court [-169-] in front of the old house. It was a mellow-looking old house of red brick and once white stone: grimy, of course, but the grime had a bloom on it like that of a blackened pipe. A semicircular block of stone steps led up to the front door. A flat square penthouse projected over the steps; the lintel and the doorposts were richly carved, but smoky dust almost obliterated their cherubs' cheeks and trumpets, vine leaves, and grape clusters. Save that they were low-pitched, most of the rooms were noble chambers, but they seemed strangely bare of human life and ordinary furniture. Lockman and Nephew - both long before dead and buried, but represented by the nephew's brother, Dingley - dealt wholesale in all kinds of twine and cordage. In balls, in figure-of-8 hanks, in huge coiled lumps like giants' pigtail tobacco, hemp, tarred and untarred, scented and filled the house. In business hours there were often a good many people about the place, but during the evening hours, in which I generally called, it was startlingly noiseless. The old woman, who pretended to sweep and dust the 'office' - once a pantry - and 'did for' the bachelor foreman who resided on the premises, dived into subterranean darkness as soon as she had answered my tug at the pear-shaped bell-pull, and piloted me from the little gate cut out of the big gates - jealously locked again as soon as I had stepped into the yard - into the dimly-lighted hall of the old house. The foreman was almost always out then. The old man I went to see and myself had the whole of the above-ground premises to ourselves. Sometimes we sat and talked in his scantily furnished room; sometimes [-170-] we sauntered from floor to floor through groves of cordage that had a weird look in the dusk; sometimes we had our chat in what had once been a garden at the back of the house. Two or three fruit trees were still left in it-black, crooked old things, but still their poor thin old sap was sufficiently stirred by the presence of spring to put out a few white and pink-and-white blossoms, pathetically straggling. A rotten rustic seat and a prostrate dial pillar were the only other signs left to show that the grim, black backyard had ever been green with grass and red with roses. Above its high walls rose higher dead walls. No windows except those of the lifeless house commanded it. It was a quaintly quiet place to find in a neighbourhood so densely populated. The hum of voices and the roll of traffic came to us there softened as if by long distance. The very patch of sky that we could see at the mouth of our shaft of dead walls seemed isolated. And the old man with whom I talked under those old pear and apple trees was as lonely as his dwelling. The only person in the world who loved him was his little granddaughter, and from her he was separated as he thought for life. She was the only child of his only child, and this son had been obliged to flee the country; having first worried his mother and his wife into their graves, deceived and ruined his father, and deceived and seriously embarrassed his father-in-law. The enraged father-in-law maintained that the father had been in league with his rascally son. When the penniless old man left the country town in which he had lived from boyhood without disgrace - except that which his son's rascality had reflected on him - he was [-171-] obliged to leave his little Lily behind him, with the understanding that she was to have no further communication with him. Those were the terms on which the other grandfather took charge of her. The old man came up to London to begin life anew - not hopefully, as the unsophisticated young come, but from the motive that drives the worsted of all ages to London  -to hide their distress in a crowd. When the 'nephew' of 'Lockman and Nephew' was quite a boy, the old man had known him and been kind to him. He was the only being in all wide London that the old man - whom we call Mr White- - could think of as at all likely to put him in the way of earning the humblest crust in this tragically huge congeries of most commonplace struggles for daily bread. With very faint hope Mr White went to the city office of the firm, and his heart sank within him when he found that the Mr Dingley into whose presence he was ushered was one who had not at first the slightest recollection of him. Mr Dingley, suspecting imposture, asked searching questions, with short City sharpness, but at last, when he had convinced himself that his visitor had known his brother, he suddenly exclaimed, 'By-the-bye, I do remember hearing John talk sometimes about a Mr White who was very kind to him when he spent his holidays at ----. I'm sorry to say I can do very little for you, Mr White. Your age is against you. You must come into the mill young, if you want to get on in London. But I'll do what I can. There's no vacancy in our place, or likely to be, but I'll make inquiries elsewhere. Mind, you musn't expect any salary but what it seems like an insult to offer to a man of your years, and [-172-] standing once - that son of yours must be a precious scamp. Perhaps you'll let me be your banker for a day or two - and, Mr White - lodging runs away with money in London. Excuse my mentioning it, but we've got a little room or two we don't use in our warehouse down by the river. You're welcome to live there rent-free as long as you like. You'll be of use to us, for I've a notion our foreman often leaves the premises unprotected Wait a bit, and I'll write a line to the housekeeper There, I've told her to hunt you up some sticks - there must be plenty stowed away somewhere - as many as you'll want, at any rate. And now, good morning, Mr White. Call again on Thursday - perhaps I may have heard of something for you by that time. Excuse my hurrying you, but time is money in the City. That reminds me - I was to be your banker.' He forced a couple of sovereigns, together with the note, into the old man's hand, and showed him out of the inner office. When Mr White called again on the Thursday, it was to receive a note that Mr Dingley had left for him, introducing him to a situation in another firm. The hours were very long, the work was disagreeable, the pay was very small, for an old man; but Mr White felt very grateful to Mr Dingley. It is not everybody who will put himself to trouble to aid an old man simply because he was once kind to a dead brother. Past kindnesses which we have received ourselves are disgracefully apt to grow dim in our recollection, when there is no prospect of more to come from the same quarter. The foreman took a faint liking to Mr White as soon as he found the old man was no spy. The 'housekeeper' did all she could to make him com-[-173-]fortable, because he was so 'civil-spoken,' so anxious to save trouble, and so ready to give any help he could. She soon discovered that the greatest kindness she could show him was - not to inflict her garrulity upon him. 'Pore old gentleman,' she once said to me, 'it's plain to see that he is a gentleman, an' 'as 'ad 'eavy sorrers. It makes my 'eart bleed to see 'im slavin' as he do. I'd git up willing to git' 'is breakfast for 'im, but he 'on't let me. Them dark, bitter winter mornin's, too, an' 'im as as been used to a comfortable 'ome, gittin' is breakfast at a coffee-stall! An' then back he comes at night, lookin' as tired as tired, but he al'ays tries to give me a cheery word when I lets 'im in. An' then he goes upstairs to 'ave is tea, an' read a book or the paper, an' to smoke is pipe ; or if it's fine, he smokes it out in the backyard, all alone of 'isself, pore dear; but it's company to me, though he ain't fond o' talk, to know that a nice old gentleman like 'im is on the place, for the foreman don't come 'ome till three or four in the mornin' - horfen.'
    I had got to know Mr White through his coming regularly to our church, and as often as I could, which was not very often, I dropped in to have a chat with him in the evening. His loneliness touched me, and the matter-of-course resignation with which he bore his troubles inspired me with sincere respect. He made no martyr of himself - he did not speak about his bowing to the will of God; but it was manifest that he had suffered, and that his sufferings had not shaken his trust in God, but rather deepened his love for the divine element incarnated in Christ - the Solacer of the sorrowful, the Saviour of the [-174-] sinful. Shallow-hearted people sneer at what they call 'the Gushing' in both life and literature, and unfortunately, in both, 'gushing' is shammed often enough to justify apparently the sneers of those who do not 'gush' for the same reason that a stagnant ditch does not. Natheless, and sharing fully, I hope, the Englishman's healthy hatred of 'a scene,' I am not ashamed to confess that I often felt half ready to cry when I heard Mr White talk about his little Lily. She was the only subject on which he ever waxed loquacious. Her precocious demands for definitions definite enough for her scrupulously truth-loving, and delicately though dexterously deceit-detecting, satisfaction; her monkey-tricks; her wondrous old-wife wisdom; the pretty way in which she said her prayers; her general love for all created things - her special affection for the suffering; her more especial love for 'real grandpapa' - her trying to comfort him when she saw he was in trouble, by trying to make his bed 'all by herself' (getting half smothered its the process): these were topics on which the old man was never weary of dilating. But the maternal grandfather, though he had never seemed to care a pin for her before, had claimed little Lily when 'real grandpapa' came to grief, and knowing that he could then do nothing for the child, Mr White, for the child's sake, had been obliged to submit with humiliated gratitude to the claim. After he had obtained his poor little employment in London he had several times written to the father of his son's wife, inquiring after little Lily, and expressing his anxious willingness to take her under his own charge, if the [-175-]  change of guardianship would not injure the child's prospects; but his first letter had come back to him with no answer except its resealing and redirection; and the others had been returned without even being opened. Poor old Mr White, I could see, pined for his granddaughter's presence. He loved her dearly, not only for her own sake, but also because she was all the good that had come to him - and such a good~-from the reprobate only child of whom he had once been almost as fond. Tom couldn't be utterly bad, or he would never have had such a child as little Lily, the old man thought.
    One evening when I called at the old house the housekeeper exclaimed rapturouslym 'What do you think, sir? - he's got his little girl! She's sittin' with him in the yard - have a look at 'em before you go out - they're a pictur!' That evening I contented myself with looking at them through the hall window; they looked so happy in their re-union that I thought it would be cruel to intrude my company on them. They were sitting under one of the black old apple trees, then sprinkled with greets and pink-and-white; and the golden-haired little girl was pouring out the grey-haired old man's tea for him as gravely as if she had been his own age, whilst he still held one of her hands, as if he must touch her to make sure that he was not dreaming. 'Yesterday mornin',' said the housekeeper, 'Sergeant Rogers come in with her. "Does a Mr White live here?" he axes. "Yes," says the foreman, "but he 'on't be in till night." "Well," says the sergeant, "this little girl says he's her granfather, an' so I've brought her." An' where do you think [-176-] he'd found her, sir? He'd looked in the night afore to see what was up at Mother Clam's - that's a lodgin'-'ouse in Tar Barrel Court - an' there with all them dirty drabs o' women squabblin' round her was Miss Lily sayin' her little prayers afore she went to bed. So, when she got up, he axes her what she was doin' there, an' she says that one o' the women had promised to take her to her gran'father. "Who's he, an' where does he live?" axes the sergeant. So she shows him a bit of paper, with "Mr White, Messrs Lockman and Nephew's, ----- Lane,  ----- Street," wrote on it. So he takes her to the station-'ouse for the night, an' then he brings her here. I 'ad her down in the kitchen till the old gentleman come 'ome, an' tidied her up a bit - for she'd walked the shoes off her feet. All the way from ----- that pore little dear had walked. As well as I can make out, she was livin' with another grandfather as didn't like this one as she calls her real gran'father, an' wouldn't tell her nothing about him. An' they was cross to her there all kind o' ways, all excep' a little cousin of hers, an' him she got to write down what was wrote on that there bit o' paper, an' up she comes to London with it, sleepin' in barns an' on haystacks, an' that like. Somewheres about Bow, as well as I can make out, she fell in with the woman that took her to Mother Clam's, an' who knows what might ha' come of her if the sergeant hadn't come across her? You should ha' seen the to-do there was when the old gentleman come 'ome last night. She run out with me when he rung, an' up she jumped, an' hugged him as if she was goin' to throttle him, an' he downwright cried for joy, an' I cried too. [-177-] Out I had to go at once to buy her some new clothes. I do hope there's no lor to take her from him. She's cheered him up wonderful, and she'll be such company for me all day.  It's astonishing what wisdom that child has, an' yet she's full o' fun an' as fond as fond can be. It's awful, though, to see how good she is. "Weren't you afraid, my pretty dear," says I, "to sleep out all alone by yourself like that?" "No, nurse," says she - that's the name she's give me - "no, nurse," she says, "I said my prayers, an' it was nice when I woke in the night to see the stars up above - just like angels watching over me. '