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ONE day when I was going out of my house, I almost ran
against an old woman who had come up to ring the bell - meanwhile dolefully chanting
'Hare-skins - rabbit-skins?' A skin or two
dangled from her arm, and they were the only warm-looking wraps she had about
her. In spite of great coat, comforter, muffetees, and cork-soles, the bleak
east wind had nipped me when I opened the front door, but this poor old creature
was shivering in a cotton gown that had lost all 'body' and definable colour from
long wear and many washings, and a shawl so threadbare that the wind must have
rushed through it like water through a net. She stooped as if she found the
burden of life too heavy for her, and had the half stern, half stolid look which
a lifetime of cloud, scarcely ever broken by the merest glimpse of light,
generally gives to those unto whom such days and nights are appointed.
'Any hare-skins or rabbit-skins?' she repeated with mechanical monotony when I made my appearance. 'Oh! I thought you had brought me a hare,' I said by way of joke, pointing to the hare-skin dangling from her arm. 'I'm too busy to shoot hares, even if I had the chance, and I'm too poor to buy hares - and no one ever sends me any.' Instead of smiling at my very mild facetiousness, the old woman instantly turned away and went along the street, raising from time to time her dreary chant. Time was too precious to her to be wasted in idle chat with one who offered such poor chances of his ever being available for the extension of her business.
As the bent, miserably-poor old woman went down the straight, cold, grim street with the hare-skin hanging over her arm, the brambled woodlands in which the hare had frolicked, the grassy lanes along which it had scampered, the green corn it had nibbled in the dewy moonlight, were scarcely more difficult to realize than the comfortable dinner-table at which, most probably, it had been eaten. It was through having been led to think of the contrasts between the surroundings of the hare and those of the old woman who would make her little profit out of the sale of its skin, that I chanced to take particular notice of her; and so was able to recognize her when I met her a week or two afterwards. She was turning into a little paved court, a pinched oblong, with an opening that was a mere slit between the houses of the street on which it gave. Its own little houses were two-floored, but a tall man standing on tiptoe could almost have looked into their upper windows. If the doors of the two rows of [-224-] hovels that stared into each other's faces with lack-lustre eyes had opened outwards, they would nearly have met. At the bottom of the court rose a high dead wall. Nevertheless, this cul de sac was used as a drying-ground, damp, dusky sheets, shirts, &c., hanging thickly from the lines stretched across it. Beneath the dripping clothes ragged children were sprawling and squabbling on the filthy flags, and in a corner at the bottom of the court half-a-dozen lads were playing at pitch and toss.
A man stood watching them: a man of thirty, with scraps of paper pinned here and there, for ornament, upon his ragged clothes, and a roll of paper, torn at the end into a rough imitation of a plume, stuck into the band of his hat, the semi-detached crown of which stood up over his shaggy hair like the lid of an opened preserved-meat tin. 'There's mammy, March Hare,' cried one of the lads, and the poor idiot came capering up to the poor old hare-skin collector. Each seemed delighted to see the other. The old woman's sternly sombre face broke out into a fond mother's smile as she greeted her poor prancing son, but March Hare's' face soon clouded. 'Lollies, mammy, blues,' he wheedled, holding out his hand like a monkey's paw. When his mother told him that she had not been able to bring him any lollies, he put his finger in his mouth, and sulked. 'Lollies tomorrer, perhaps, Tommy,' said the old woman. 'Come in with mammy now, like a good boy.' 'No, s'an't,' lisped poor Tommy, stamping his foot like a spoilt child. She persuaded him to go in with her, however, and they disappeared in the entry of one of the houses.
[-225-] I had not time to make inquiries about them then, but one evening when I had a little leisure I went to the house. The little children squatted on the doorstep maintained a solemn silence when I asked them in which room the old woman who sold hare-skins lived. They did not budge an inch to enable me to pass through their serried ranks; so I had to make a long stride over their matted heads. Then one of them condescended to say, 'Up-stairs - right afore ye,' and, at this remark, although I was puzzled to discover the point of the joke, the whole company of infantry grinned and chuckled. The door they had pointed out stood open, and when I looked into the little room, I saw the poor grown-up baby seated on his mother's knee, sucking a bit of sugar-stick, at the same time pouting his sticky lips, in baby style, for the kisses which his poor old mother was giving him. He's not himself, poor boy, and so you see, sir, I humour him,' she said. 'Run out now, Tommy, and play like a good boy, becos me and the gentleman wants to have a talk.'
'Got any blues?' said Tommy, getting off his mother's knee, and sidling up to me. 'Tommy likes lollies.' He looked so disappointed when he found I had none, that I gave him a penny to buy some, and then he departed in high glee. My young friends of the doorstep had been peeping into the room, and rushed down before him, shouting-
'The swell's guv March Hare a penny, and he's a-goin' to spend it !'
'He won't get much out o' that, won't poor Tommy, thank you all the same, sir,' said the old woman. 'He's [-226-] uncommon fond o' sweeties; but he'll give 'em all away to the little 'uns, if they axes him, and they takes adwantage of him.'
'Do they tease him?'
'No, sir; neither them nor the other folks about here as knows him: they're all kind to him in their way, and 'ill take his part, if they sees strangers puttin' on him. But then poor Tommy goes roamin', and gits 'unted by bad boys elsevheres. He'll come 'ome kivered with muck, and cryin' as if 'is 'eart 'ood break. Ah, sir, it's a sore trial to a mother to see a fine 'andsome chap like him runnin' up to her jest as if he was a baby - and him all she's got in the world, poor feller.'
I had not noticed poor Tommy's good looks; but then I had not his mother's eyes to look at him with. As delicately as I could, I asked why he was called March Hare.
'Well, you see, sir, it's partly along o' my sellin' the skins, and partly becos he ain't quite right. "As mad as a March hare," you know, they says - the hares goes mad in March, I'm told - all on 'em. Though if they isn't madder than my poor boy, they'll do no harm. It's astonishin', sir, what sense he have sometimes: he ain't half as silly as he seems. It's only his funny ways as makes folks think he is. God's give him sich a 'appy 'eart, that he can't 'elp caperin' about at what seems queer times to most folk; but Tommy's a sight more brains, hid away like, than many as laughs at him. He fair frightens me the way he talks sometimes - jest as if he was a-talkin' wi' angels. He see a angel down by the [-227-] lamp-post, outside the court, and if that's bein' silly, I wish I was silly, too ; for I don't see no angels, and it 'ud be a change to sich as me.'
'And to a good many more, I suspect.'
'Well, the kindness of that poor boy you wouldn't believe. I tries to keep about for both our sakes; but now and then I gits laid up, and to see the way my poor Tom 'angs about me, and does what he can, poor dear, 'ud surprise you, sir. I pray God I may keep him as long as J can do for him; but when I've been a-lyin' 'ere, not knowing but what I might be gone afore to-morrer, I've prayed as God 'ud take my poor Tommy afore me; for there 'ud be nobody as could understand him when I was gone. They'd shut Tommy up, and that he never could abide.'
'Can he do anything to help you?'
'I've no doubt he could, sir, and he'd be willing enough, poor boy, but then you see folks has a prejudice agin flighty ways in the way o' business, and besides, Tommy's so kind-hearted, he'd be sure to git took in. But what he can he does. He'll have the kittle bilin' for me when he don't 'appen to forgit it, poor boy, and he'll tidy up the place accordin' to his notions -it ain't ezackly my way, but then he looks jest as if I'd scolded him if I puts the things straight, and so when poor Tom's been a-tidyin' I lets the things be till he's out o' the way agin.'
'I suppose he never goes far from home?'
'Oh, he'll go out into the country and bring me 'ome great boughs o' May, and bundles o' buttercups and blue bells that you couldn't grapse in your two hands, sir. [-228-] The room's like a bower spring time and summer. But Tommy can't abear to see the flowers a-witherin'. He'll pull 'em down in a rage like, but he don't chuck 'em into the court. He makes a great 'eap o' them, and carts 'em back into the country next time he goes for more. He's got a fancy that they'll git better if he takes 'em 'ome - that's what Tommy calls it.'
'Do you ever go into the country with him?'
'No, sir, I've enough walkin' about in the town. All day long I'm at it, and sometimes I don't git a single individival skin. It's years since I was as far as the Forest - not since I was married.'
'Did you ever see a hare running then?'
'No, sir, I never see a live hare and never tasted a dead un. Some o' the neighbours goes to the Forest sometimes in a wan, but I hain't no money to spend on wans, and if I had, my poor Tommy 'oodn't go. You couldn't git him into a wan - no, sir, not if you offered him ten thousand golden guineas, nor not if it was to save his life.'
'How is that?'
'I was in the family-way with him when his poor father was killed by one o' them lumberin' brewers' drays -had his 'ead smashed as you'd scrunch a black beetle, sir - and that's what upset poor Tommy's mind. Bad boys tries to pull him up to a wan, or a cart, or anything that's got wheels, sometimes, and tells him he must git in, jest to tease him. But it ain't a safe game to play. It drives my poor Tommy downright wild. He'll howl so as it's awful to 'ear 'im, and bite and kick and do anything he [-229-] can to git away. Ah, that was the beginnin' of my troubles! My husband was a steady young man, and we was very fond o' one another, and we 'adn't been married a year. P'r'aps he might ha' got tired on me, and cross to me like other men, if he'd lived, but I don't believe he 'ood, anyhow he hadn't the chance. My poor Tommy was born in the workus, but, please God, he shan't die there - no, nor the workus shan't bury him, if I can 'elp it.'
'Has he lived with you ever since he was born?'
'Yes, sir, when I came out of the workus, I brought Tommy with me, and we hain't been parted since. He was sich a comfort to me when he was quite a little un - not but what he's a comfort to me now - I'd never part with him; but that was different. I used to thank God so as he was a boy, and not a gal. The men al'ays gits the best of it in this world, however 'tis in the next. I thought he'd grow up a steady tradesman like his father, and then I should have some un to lean on agin.'
'And you were never married again?'
'P'r'aps I might ha' got married agin if I'd wanted - anyhow, I wasn't axed, and I didn't want neither. "I'll look arter my boy," I used to say to myself "and he'll be a comfort to me." The neighbours as see the child used to say that he didn't take notice and behave like other babies; but I thought that was jest envy becos he was sich a much finer child than theirn. "He ain't like other children, I'd tell 'em back, boastin' like, "as you'll find when he grows up." It was a long, long time afore I'd let myself believe that he was different from other [-230-] children in another kind o' way, but I was forced at last, and a sore trial it were to me.
'But God fits the back to the burden.'
'I know that, sir, and if it wasn't for fearin' as I might die afore him, and leave him with nobody to care for him, I could almost be glad that my poor Tom is as he is. If he'd had all his right senses, he mightn't ha' loved his mother as he do now that he's got nobody else to hold to. He'd ha' had a wife and little uns of his own, and p'r'aps he'd ha' thought nothin' o' me. He's a real comfort to me, sir, though you mightn't think it. He's so fond o' me. Though he's sich a great big chap, his heart haven't growed like out of knowledge. He'll snuggle up to me and stroke my face, jest as he would when I ad him at the breast.'
On my asking her as to the kind of living she made she went on,-
'Me and my poor Tom has been pretty nigh starvin' sometimes, but, thank God, we've got through the hard times somehow, as the sparrers does, and there never was a cross word betwixt us. And, as I was a-sayin', Tom ain't half as silly as folks makes him out to be. It 'ud be long afore a good many o' them 'ud say the improvin' things my poor Tom do at times. He'll be talk in' all kinds o' stuff that I can't make neither head nor tail of, and then, all of a sudden, he'll look round sharp like a bird and say somethin' jest like a bit out o' the Bible. It was only last week he'd been goin' on with his games, though I couldn't 'elp cryin', for I'd done uncommon bad, and how I was to pay my rent I didn't [-231-] know. Well, sir, poor Tommy see me, and up he come, and says he, "No cry, no cry. Laugh like Tommy." "Ah, my poor boy," says I, "I wish I could." "God loves merry folk," says Tom. Well, sir, that set me athinkin', as Tom's sayin's often does. Anyhow, if I couldn't be merry, I thought I wouldn't be mopish.. It seemed a sin like, and my poor boy so cheerful. So I shook myself up, and things looked a deal brighter. If you believe in God, it do seem a sin to go about as if you was at a funeral - there ain't much faith in that - though it's uncommon 'ard for sich as me to cheer up sometimes.'
When I heard this poor old woman inculcating the duty of Christian cheerfulness, I could not help thinking of the heads always bowing like a bulrush, the faces never relaxing into a smile, that I had seen in Christian homes' crammed with all kinds of comfort. The repellent effect which such visages must have upon the young has often been pointed out, but we are too apt to look upon persistent dolefulness of this kind as merely an unfortunate weakness, whereas it is really, as the old woman called it, a sin.* [* On this point I may quote a pregnant little paragraph from Mrs Jameson :- 'Dante placed in his lowest hell those who in life were melancholy and repining without a cause, thus profaning and darkening God's blessed sunshine; and in some of the ancient Christian systems of virtues and vices, melancholy is unholy and a vice; cheerfulness is holy and a virtue. Lord Bacon also makes one of the characteristics of moral health and goodness to consist in "a constant quick sense of felicity, and a noble satisfaction. "']
In reply to further inquiries about her calling, the old woman said [-232-] 'Well, sir, my trade ain't like a good many - it's briskest in winter. There's more skins to be picked up then, and they're better. God gives the poor things more hair in the winter to keep 'em warm. I've sometimes wished my gown 'ud grow thick like that, but then, arter a manner o speakin', it is somehow that way with me, becos I can do best when the weather's cold. But then the coals runs away with the money - so p'r'aps it don't make much difference - and you want to eat more when the weather's sharp. Poor Tommy's appetite is good, and it goes agin my heart to stint him - I'd far rather go without myself - but sometimes I'm forced to. My earnin's ain't much to keep two people on 2d., and sometimes more, I've to give for a skin, and then I only git a ha'penny by it.'
'Where do you go to church?'
'I don't go to church nor to chapel - not reg'lar chapel - neither. I haven't got fit clothes, nor Tommy hasn't, and they wouldn't let him run about at a reg'lar place o' worship as they does where we goes.'
I found that a good, simple-hearted man, a genuine Christian, though he was a 'Christian unattached,' had hired for Sunday services a room in the neighbourhood, used as a dancing-room during the week. Here he had gathered together a little flock of human strays, to whom he tried to do good on week-days also, so far as his scanty leisure and small means would permit. What I heard of his unassuming teaching and beneficence interested me greatly. I determined to attend one of his services as soon as I could find an opportunity. It is not often that an East End curate finds himself without 'duty' on a [-233-] Sunday, but one Sunday morning I was in that condition, and started for 'Battersby Hall.' Its only frontage to the street was a cramped entrance-passage, which I should have passed without noticing it, had not a board-bill, inviting all to enter, 'free seats and no collection,' leaned against the door-post, and one or two depressed women been dropping into the passage. I followed the depressed women into an oblong room, with fixed forms running along its sides, and a few movable forms placed across it at the top; behind them, on a little platform, stood a deal table and a stool. A few women who looked as if all energy had been worn out of them, and one or two feeble old men, were dotted about the forms. I seated myself in a corner near the door, where I could see without being seen, and watched the rest of the congregation come in. They were much of the same class - about fifty in all; amongst them the old hare-skin gatherer and poor Tommy. A mild little man in a brown coat and checked neckerchief took his place behind the table, gave out a hymn, and started the tune. Very thin and quavering was the congregational singing that followed, but all the singers seemed to find a comfort in it. As long as the singing lasted March Hare was as still as a mouse, but during the rest of the service - until the singing began again - he wandered about the room on tiptoe, smiling vacantly at everything and everybody. After a prayer which called forth many a half-smothered amen, the little man in the brown coat read a chapter from the New Testament, and then he took a text, and talked kindly about it to his people - there was no attempt at set ser-[-234-]monizing. Perhaps there was nothing that would have struck critical sermon-hearers in what he said, except an occasional slip in grammar or pronunciation, but his hearers drank in his words. They had reached another oasis in their life's desert. They had come from miserable homes, in which there was no privacy or quiet, to rest from work for a while in a tranquil room (in which poor Tommy's movements were not more disturbing than a butterfly's flittings) and hear a good man, in whom, with much reason, they had full confidence, tell them, in his simple quiet way, of the everlasting rest which remaineth for the people of God. They looked sorry when he had finished, but they sang the final hymn more heartily than the first, and gave lustier amens to the last prayer. 'The peace of God which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always,' said the unassuming preacher; and after a minute's silent lingering on their knees, his congregation rose, exchanged quiet greetings with him, and then slowly crept back to their dreary homes - made far less dreary because they carried back to them, out of that peculiar little conventicle, some portion of that priceless peace. Poor Tom, no longer on his good behaviour, capered and chuckled merrily in the open air, but he, too, looked more easy in his mind because he had been to hear the brown-coated little evangelist of Battersby Hall.