Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XVII - A Blind Couple and their Young Friends

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LUTHER'S Hymn is a noble tune, but when played quaveringly on a fife, it neither soothes one's feelings nor stimulates sluggish thought. I heard it one Saturday morning so played, when I was in want of both such sedative and such spur. I had a sermon to write, and was not in sermon-writing trim. After choosing and rejecting some dozen texts, I had at last selected one which seemed suggestive but when I had written it down, it, too, suggested nothing. It was easy to write a few lines of general introduction that would have done for almost any sermon, but when those were finished, I was once more at a standstill. For some twenty minutes I had been dabbing my pen into the ink-stand, as if sentences could be speared like salmon, and feverishly fluttering the virgin pages of my paper, when a shrill fife tremulously struck up the tune I have mentioned, directly under my window. It jarred so on my nerves - [-179-] more especially because it reminded me of the pulpit for which I was half-hopelessly striving to prepare - that, I am ashamed to say, I lost my temper. I tossed my paper into a drawer, put up my Bible, Prayer-book, and Concordance, and went to the window to intimate to the quavering minstrel that he must move on - although, as I had made up my mind to use an old sermon on the morrow, I had no longer a good excuse for doing so. I felt very much ashamed of myself when I found who the minstrel was. 'He saw a man which was blind from his birth' was the last text I had chosen, and the fife-player was a white-haired blind man. He stood shivering in the muddy roadway, stopping the holes of his fife with fingers so swollen, blue, and numb from cold that it was no wonder his music was made up of 'shakes.' His dog shook, too, as he sat on his haunches on the pavement, with a battered decanter-slide in his black, bluff muzzle, and a half-ludicrous wheedling look in his honest round eyes. When I raised the window, the dog stood up on all fours, and wagged his stump of a tail in anticipation of a contribution to his tray. Before I could drop the coin, however, a tumult arose in a side street, and as the noise came nearer every moment, the dog strained at his cord until his eyes seemed starting from his head, in order to drag his master on to the footpath but before he could do so a runaway horse dashed round the corner, and knocked the old man down. He had been picked up by the time I got into the street, but he was quite stunned. We carried him into the nearest chemist's shop, where he was restored to sensibility, but as his arm was [-180-] broken, the druggist advised that he should be at once taken to the hospital. Of course, by that time a crowd had gathered in front of the shop, flattening their faces against the window-panes, and trying to force open the bolted door. Accidents have a curious fascination for the lower orders of Londoners. No doubt they pity the sufferers, but still they seem to delight in witnessing their sufferings, and to be very proud if they can do anything that brings them en rapport at first-hand with the mishap. As soon as it was known outside that we wanted a cab, a rush was made to the nearest cab-stand, and in a few minutes four cabs came galloping up-their excited callers sitting and pointing with great importance on the box-seats. Those on the three that did not get the fare had to descend with undignified precipitancy before the drivers' abuse. We put the poor old man into the first that pulled up, his dog leaped in after him, and I went as third passenger to the London Hospital. All the time we were in the shop, the poor dog had been sadly perplexed. He seemed partly persuaded that those who were handling his old master meant kindly, but still he could not make quite sure. Now he would drop his tray, and whine, and try to push his nose into his master's hand; and then again he would give a low growl, snatch up his tray, and plant himself with firmly-set bandy legs and a menacing wrinkle on his nose, before the chair in which the old man drooped, as if he wished to let us know that, whilst he had a tooth left, no one should take liberties with his master's person or property. On the way to the hospital he snuggled by his master's side, licking his face and [-181-] hands, and every now and then giving a literal whimper of sympathy when the old man gave a groan at a worse jolt than usual. The dog eyed me suspiciously when I took my place on the opposite seat, but as soon as he found from his master's tone that my intentions were good, his severe look relaxed, and he apologized for it by giving a wag or two of his brief tail in the rare moments in which his concern for his master would allow him to notice my presence. 'I suppose they won't take in my dog as well as me, sir,' the old man said. 'He's been a good friend to me this seven year, has Billy - the best dog I ever had, and they've all been good. "Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?" the man in the Bible says; but if he'd been a dog, he wouldn't never ha' done it. There ain't many men nor women neither can come near dogs for faithfulness.' Another jolt, and groan, and whimper.
    'All right, old chap,' the old man went on, patting his dog with his undisabled hand; 'you shall go home and keep the missis company. She'd be lonesomer than ever without you, poor old girl. My poor wife is dark, like myself sir. She goes out most days to earn what she can, but she's at home to-day, laid up with the infleenzy. If I might make so bold, sir, I should take it kindly if you'd give her a call, and tell her where I am, and that I hope to be out again soon, please God. And here's sevenpence-halfpenny I've took this morning - she'll want it. Stevens - Henry Stevens - is my name, and we live in Cook's Alley. You go along the Back Road till you come to Well Street, and then you turn - but bless ye, Billy will [-182-] take you. Now you pay attention, Billy. You're to go home presently with this gentleman - to the missis - do you mind? And you behave yourself like a good dog, Billy'
    Billy thumped a tail-tattoo on the cab-cushion and glanced patronizingly across at me as much as to say, 'You needn't be afraid - I'll take care of you, because master bids me.'
    'You won't want the string, sir,' the old man added, as he slipped off the dog's collar, 'and it will be cheery like to have something as belonged to poor old Billy when I'm shut in yonder. Now mind you don't go moping, Billy, because of the missis; and you take this gentleman the nearest way you know. Don't you stop at the Chequers, Billy - I'm not a drinkin' man, sir, I thank God, but sometimes I look in there to get a rest and half a pint, and if I hadn't told the dog, you see, sir, he might have wanted you to go in, and that's what a clergyman wouldn't like, I know.'
    I was going to ask the old man how he knew that I was a clergyman, but just then the cab gave a lurch that made him clench his teeth in agony, and Billy, forgetting that my character had been vouched for, bared his at me in very ferocious fashion. Soon afterwards we reached the admirable institution which provides for the poorest of London's poor medical and surgical skill equal to what the richest can command, and liberal treatment which is· at least on a level with that of any hospital anywhere. When I had handed over the old man to the hospital's care, and promised to execute his commissions, and come to see him as soon as possible, I started for Cook's [-183-] Alley under the pilotage of Billy, who had lavished canine kisses with nose and tongue on his master at parting. The dog did really take me the nearest route: turning down beside the hospital in a straight line into the Commercial Road, and then, almost in a straight line, into the Back Road. Every minute or two he looked back to see if I was following, and then when he found I was, trotted gravely on as before. If I had not followed him, I am inclined to think that he would have taken me into custody. When we reached Cook's Alley, after threading a maze of inosculating courts and lanes, Billy's arrival without his master caused much wonderment ,amongst the local loungers. But Billy took no notice of them. He merely threw back one more glance at me, and then trotted on to the foot of, and up, a staircase at the bottom of the alley: the loungers following to the landing on which Billy halted, to discover 'what was up.'
    They were so dirty and ragged, and the common staircase was so filthy, that I was quite startled when the door at which Billy scratched and whined was opened. The old blind woman who opened it looked, in spite of her indisposition, 'as neat as a new pin;' both floor and ceiling were clean; the walls were papered with cheap woodcuts; a few flower-pots stood on the window-seat; the window-panes were transparent; the hearth was swept up; there were two or three china ornaments and a little looking-glass on the mantel-shelf; and the furniture, crockery, cooking utensils, &c., although scanty, were all free from dust, and rubbed, washed, and scoured up to look their best and brightest.
    [-184-] When I had told my tidings, and allayed the old woman s anxiety to the best of my ability, I could not help expressing my astonishment at the neatness of her room.
    'Oh, sir,' she said, 'if we can't see dirt, we can feel it. I hate a muddle, and it's a okypation to keep things nice about one. P'r'aps there's a bit of pride in it. Seeing folks, they say, have their places sometimes in a rare mess. But then again, I like to keep my place tidy, though I can't see it, that them as can may take pleasure in it when they drop in. So p'r'aps there ain't much harm in being proud of it after all - and my poor husband's just like myself,  he can't abear dirt indoors - nor you nayther, can ye, Billy?'
    Stevens, I found, had been born blind, but the wife had lost her sight when about twenty, from an attack of small-pox. 'I was a gay, giddy girl, sir,' she said, 'very vain of my looks and my eyes, and when I came to myself, and couldn't see, and knew I was an object, I almost wished at first that I'd never got better. It didn't seem better to be like that. I was engaged to be married to a young man, but he never came near me while I was ill, and broke it all off as soon as I got about again. That cut me up dreadful at the time. I felt so lonely, for father and mother had both died of the small-pox, and there didn't seem a soul in the world that cared a penny-piece what became of me. I'm thankful now, though, it all happened as it did, for it was being left like that made me think about religion, and if I'd been a seeing woman I should have married a seeing man, and [-185-] he wouldn't have been the husband to me that Stevens have been. He is a good man, sir, though I say it as shouldn't. He was brought up at an institution, and of an evening he reads the Bible to me. There's one good thing in being blind - you can read without a candle. Yes, sir, we've been very happy, and I pray God He'll spare my poor husband to me. He's the only one in the wide world that belongs to me like.'
    'Had you ever any children?'
    'One, sir, we had, the year after we were married, but God took her when she was three year old. I didn't want the neighbours to tell me that she was a sweet pretty child - you'd only to run your hand over her face, and feel the dimples, to know that. Oh, yes, sir, s/ic could see, and beautiful eyes she had, and long curls as soft as silk. I can't tell you, sir, how proud I was of my pretty pet. Seemed as if God had given her to me to make up for making such a fright of me. And we were both so fond of her, and she was so fond of us. She was fond of everybody, pretty dear, and everybody was fond of her. Why, sir, the dog - no, it was long before Billy's time - jumped up on her bed when he heard the doctor say there was no hope for her, and she died cuddling of him, pretty dear. It did seem hard to have her took away from us that had got so little, and I was wicked enough to say so. But my husband says to me, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord," - and yet Stevens was just as much cut up as me, only in a quieter sort of way. Ah, she was a miss. It was months before we got used like [-186-] to her being away. She was always so full of fun, nobody could be dull where she was. The dog got mopish without her to play with, and my old man would sit as still as a mouse in the evening. She used to go and kneel down by him, you see, when I'd put on her little night-gown, and say her little prayers. She could say them right through without anybody telling of her, though she couldn't speak plain. If she'd lived, she'd be getting an old woman now, but it seems as if twas only yesterday I heard her saying,
    "Dentle Desus, meek an' mile,
    Dook upon a 'ittle chile.
She'll always seem a little girl to me till I see her a growed-up angel, if God will be so good as to let me. It's strange how I long to see her. Now my husband's different. He never knew what sight was, and so he can't understand my feelings about that. To have hold of her, and hear her talk, seemed enough for him, but I was always wondering exactly what she was like. I'd got my notion of her, but I couldn't be sure it was right, and so I felt robbed like - not to know my own child's face for certain. I wonder sometimes which is hardest, not to know how things look, like my poor husband; or to remember how they used to look, like me.'
    I encouraged the poor woman to talk, to divert her thoughts as much as possible from her husband's accident. When first told of it, she had wanted to start off at once to go to him. 'Poor dear,' she had said, 'lying there all alone of himself. Billy will take me, and I'd leave him [-187-] if they'd promise to give him something to eat. Billy would be a comfort to my poor old man. It's astonishing what a kind heart that dog has - he'd see his master wasn't put upon.'
    I persuaded the good woman, however, both for her own sake and her husband's, to wait until the next 'visiting day' before she went to the hospital. When we had been talking for some time, she suddenly exclaimed, 'It seems cruel to be sitting here doing nothing, and him lying yonder. If I mayn't go, will you say a prayer for him, sir?' She sobbed out her amens, but when we rose from our knees she seemed to be comforted. 'Thankee, sir,' she said. 'We've asked God to take care of him, and we can't do better than that, can we, Billy?' She spoke, habitually, to the dog just as if he were 'the  Christian' she called him. Billy in response leaped into her lap. 'Now, isn't that strange?' said the old woman. 'He'll never do that when Stevens is at home, but he wants to say he's pleased, and 'll do all he can to cheer me up.'
    We had some more chat, in the course of which I learnt the history of this blind couple. The parish on which she was left chargeable started the blind girl as a seller of tape, pins, boot and stay laces, and other such 'small wares.' At best the living she thus got was next door to starvation, and her state of health often threw her back again upon the parish's care. A guardian interested himself to procure her one of the few-shillings pensions that are given to the blind by benevolent persons in London, and at the house of her benefactress, the [-188-] Countess of C---, the blind girl made the acquaintance of Stevens, a fellow-pensioner. He had been taught basket-making at the institution in which he had been trained, and then was in pretty regular employ. The two married, and had and lost their little pet. The wife did her best to supplement her husband's wages with 'small-ware' earnings, but had been so often ill that, as she phrased it, 'any other man but Stevens would have got rid of me long ago; instead of a help, I'm a hindrance.' 'He could soon have got another,' she went on. 'A blind man can take his pick of wives, if he'll only beg. There's blind folk, I know, that could be cured if they would, but they won't, because they can make more without their eyes than with them. But my husband was never one of that sort. As long as he could get work at the basket-making he did it, but that's no trade for a blind man now. He can't work against them that have got their eyes, especially when he's getting a bit old and stiff. So Stevens took to playing in the street, but that ain't begging, sir. He gives good music for the money he gets. He won't so much as say, 'Please to pity the poor blind,' or have it wrote on a card, as a many do. He's a man of a very independent spirit, is my husband, and yet there's few that thinks so little of theirselves. It'll be dreary to-morrow without him, won't it, Billy? We always go to church twice on Sundays, sir, and Billy goes with us and lies under the seat as good as gold. And then when we come home, it's nice to be able to be together and sit still, instead of tramping about. And Stevens reads the Testa-[-189-]ment to me, and we sing a hymn or two before we go to bed. Sometimes there's drunken folks that make game on us, but mostly the neighbours stop it. There's few that ain't kind to blind people. An' some o' them as ain't got much to bless theirselves with can cheer up old folks like us just by their company-like. There's the four orphanses as live in the Alley. They comes in now and then an' has a cup o' tea, an' it's nice to hear 'em. They're all so fond o' one another. Sunday's always been the best day of the week to mc ever since we married. Sitting at home, or sitting in church, heaven seems nearer somehow than it do of a week-day, and it's nice to have my old man with me all day long. I shall feel lost to-morrow without him.'
    'You seem very fond of your husband.'
    'I ought to be, sir. A kinder soul don't breathe. Many a time he's gone without that I mightn't, and nursed me when I was ill just as if he was my mother. And he's as good as a minister to me. It isn't much that he says, but he says it so gentle, and then he behaves according. It was him that first taught me really to believe in my Saviour. I took a religious turn when I lost my sight - most blind folk have a liking that way - but it wasn't till I knew Stevens that I got to understand what religion was. That's enough to make me fond o' him - let alone his being so kind, and my little girl's father.'
    I became much interested in the four little orphans to whom Mrs Stevens had referred, and I shall have some-[-190-]thing to say of them again; but I may here state what I then gathered of their history from her, and a day or two afterwards from the eldest of them.
    This eldest, Phoebe, was not fourteen, but she was quite a mother to her sisters, Harriet and Emma, of eleven and ten, and her little brother, Dick, of nine. They lodged together in a room tenanted by an old woman who kept a 'refuse' fruit-stall in a neighbouring street. Disfigured as her fruit generally was, its colours contrasted queerly with the dusky gloom of the dark cramped attic in which surplus stock was garnered at night, and when the children brought home unsold posies, the bound, faded flowers seemed to be consciously-pining captives.
    Phoebe was a very grave little maiden. Her responsibilities seemed to have crushed all girlish glee out of her. She talked as if she had been past forty, instead of not fourteen. This was the account she gave me, when I wanted to get an idea of the little lonely family's daily life :- 'Well, sir, I wakes the children in the mornin', and it's hard work sometimes, when they've been walkin' a good bit the day afore, poor little things. And we says our prayers, and goes to Common Garding. It's mostly flowers we sticks to, but we'll work other things when we can git the chance. That's a good step from here, and horfen we're 'ungry by the tune we gits there. There's cawfee and bread and butter you can git, but if you can't git it, why it makes you feel the 'ungrier. No, sir, I can't say that the fruit and the wegetables ever made me feel 'ungry - you want somethin' warmin'er when you turn out o' your bed at daylight. But it is astonishin' who can eat [-191-] all that lot  -wan-loads and wan-loads of 'm - the streets round about is choked with 'em, and the cabbages is piled up like 'ouses. When the rubub's in, you can smell it ever so far off and there's the water runnin' about on the leaves like sixpences. Pretty? I hain't much time to think of what's pretty, sir. I've got to think of what'll pay best. Yes, sir, sometimes I give the little uns a bit of a feed afore I starts 'em, but that's accordin' to what I've got for stock-money. I buy whatever's in. Wi'lets comes in twice a year. Sometimes tis wi'lets, and sometimes tis primroses, and sometimes tis roses, and sometimes tis wall-flowers, and stocks, and pansies, and minninet, and lilies o' the walley - some o' the young City gents as fancies theirselves swells are wery fond o' stickin' the lily o' the walley in their button-'oles. And sometimes it's green lavender. We sells dry lavender too, but that's in the winter when we can't git nothin' else. Fresh things we buys for a penny a bunch at the market, and then we splits #em up inter two or three, and sells 'em at a penny, or a 'a'penny, accordin' to chances, and sometimes we has to bring 'em 'ome for nothin'. I does my best to freshen 'em up, but they look drunk-like in the mornin'. When we're ready, we start - sometimes this way, sometimes t'other - as far apart as we can. We takes our rounds turn and turn about. Miles we walk - hup 'Averstock 'Ill, and about the swell streets in the West-end, and hout to Clapton, and so on, sometimes. No, we never goes across the bridges - I don't know nothin' about them parts. Sometimes we does tidyish in the City, round about by the Bank and the Change. But I don't mean 'arriet shall [-192-] go there when she gits a bit older. She's a pretty little gal, and she knows it, and some o' the gals there is a bad lot. I was on the pavement in front o' the Change one Saturday arternoon, and I see a gal that was sellin' flowers there three weeks afore, with scarce a shoe to her foot, come along with a velvet bonnet and a silk cloak on; and 'arriet's fond of dressin' 'erself up. She'll put roses in 'er air, when we're a-tyin' 'em up, and I've seed 'er stop at a water-trough to look at her face in it. But she shan't git fine things that way - not if I knows it. Mother would be fit to jump out of 'eaven, if she did. Yes, sir, there's bad amongst flower-gals, but there's good too, and it's 'ard that those as tries to behave theirselves should git a bad name becos o' what the t'others does. It's 'ard work havin' to look arter children. Hemmer's a trouble to me, too, but that's only becos she's so weakly. A quieter, willin'er little gal never was. But Dick's a trial, like 'arriet. He ain't a bad-meanin' little chap, but big boys gits old on 'im, and I'm afeared they'll teach 'im wrong. He's wery owdacious. Last winter he went out Christmasin' with some big chaps. They put him up to git a great bough of mistletoe off a tree in an old gen'leman's horchard down by Chingford. But out come the old gen'leman and collared 'im, and away the t'other chaps cut. The old gen'leman was in a hawful rage, for he'd 'ad all his 'ollytrees spiled the night afore. So he up with is stick, and was jest agoin' to hide Dick, when he stopped all of a sudding. "No," says he, "it ain't your fault, you shrimp. I wish I could ketch them cowardly mates o' yourn." And he give Dick a penny, but he didn't let 'im take the mistletoe. I wish I  [-193-] could git Dick l'arnt a trade. He'll go wrong, I'm afeared, if he keeps in the streets - and so 'll 'Arriet. They both minds me now, but when they git to my age, they won't be so teachable. They're a trouble to me, sir  - both on 'em. Night and mornin' I prays for 'em, for they're dear, kind children, though they is so flighty. When little Hemmer's bad, they'll work twice as 'ard as they will other times. And it ain't jest for their own bellies - becos there's Hemmer's takin's to make up. It's becos they want to give 'er a bit of a treat; and they'll be so quiet when they come 'ome, it's strange to see 'em - specially Dick. He's uncommon fond o' Hemmer, and so's Hemmer of 'im. I wish they could be shook up together. Dick 'ud be all the better of her willin'ness, and she'd be all the better of a bit of his sperrit. And yet, though she is so quiet, she takes, mostly, more than any on us. "Pore little thing," a good many people says when they sees her. If all as says it was to buy of her, Hemmer would soon be sold out; but it's heasier to pity a party than to 'elp 'em - not that I'm a-complainin'. All things considered, we do uncommon well, thank God.'

    The blind man lay in hospital a weary while. The fracture was a serious one, and when the arm was getting better, an almost total prostration of strength supervened. A more patient sufferer I never saw. His only anxiety seemed to be about his wife and Billy. A friend to whom I had mentioned the case agreed to make the old woman a little allowance until her husband should be able to get about again. When I told him of this, his  [-194-] face flushed. 'I'm ashamed of myself' he said. 'After all that God's done for me, I was beginning to doubt Him. I was worrying myself to think that Charlotte would have to go into the house, and that would have been the death of her, poor old girl. We've always managed to keep off the parish somehow, and she'd break her heart if she couldn't come to me when the doctors allows it. I ought to have known better. There's the Lamentation the blind folks that go out begging sing. I don't like a man begging when he can do something for his living, just because he's blind; but there's some pretty poetry in the Lamentation, sir. I've often said these lines out of it to myself-

    "But since it is God's will,
The more I cannot see the day,
    He'll be my comfort still!"

And I'll go on saying 'em, for He is a comfort every way. When I first come to the hospital, I used to have bad dreams, but now they're so nice it's a treat to go to sleep - and what's that but God's goodness? Why it was only last night I dreamt that my little girl, that's dead and buried years ago, came and sat on my knee, and put her hands round my neck, just as she used to do, and then there was sweet voices all round me like birds singing, but what they sung was all my favourite verses out of the Psalms and the Testament. And now you've come and brought me this good news, and Charlotte and Billy will be here directly, and I shall be able to enjoy their com-[-195-]pany. I shan't feel as if I was starving them, lying here doing nothing.'
    Charlotte and Billy were very regular visitors at the hospital. Billy at first was refused admission, but interest was made for him, and Billy was allowed to patter up the long ward at the end of which his master lay. As soon as he reached his master's bed, Billy would leap upon it, lick the sick man's face, and then, as if conscious that he was on his good behaviour, sit quite still, wistfully watching his master, but ready to jump down the moment his mistress rose to say good-bye. It was not much that the old people said to one another, but they found a comfort in being together, hand in hand. Just before she took her departure, Charlotte generally brought out some little thing she had managed to buy for her old man;' not venturing to produce it sooner, because he had forbidden her to stint herself to get things for him, when he had everything he wanted, and this was the one command of his which she was obstinately determined not to obey.
    At last, however, Charlotte and Billy came to the hospital on a more cheerful mission. The old man was discharged, and they had come to convoy him home. Billy, generally a very grave dog, leaped and circled and whined for joy like a young puppy, until, suddenly remembering his responsibilities, he trotted up to his master to have his collar put on again. 
    The old people did not belong to my parish, but they came to my church the first Sunday after the old man's discharge. They knelt in the aisle just under me - Billy's  [-196-]  bullet-head peeping between his master's feet - when I read out, 'An old man and his wife desire to return thanks to Almighty God for His great goodness unto them.' And in their case the formula was no empty form: they meant the thanks they offered.