Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXI - Alone in London

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A MAN may live for years in London, and not know the name of his next-door neighbour. Lives maybe revolutionized by joy or sorrow within a few feet of him, and he may have no suspicion of the fact, unless he happens to see a train of wedding or funeral carriages in the street. His wife knows a little more than he knows of his neighbour's concerns, his servants know a little more than his wife does; but all the knowledge, put together, is very slight and very vague, unless a bridegroom, an undertaker, a baby, or a bailiff, enters the neighbour's house. Even doctors' visits - when the doctor is a strange doctor - are not always noticed; and a man may be distressed to learn that he was entertaining noisy companions at a time when, only separated from him by a brick and a half his neighbour or his neighbour's wife was enduring the physical torture, or shuddering under the moral solemnity, of the last moments of their life on earth.
   [-236-] To country-people, such a state of things appears horrible. They know what their neighbours have for dinner every day, and when the next tooth of every neighbour's child is due; and they think, therefore, that Londoners must be, not merely fish-blooded, contemptibly coldhearted, but execrably cruel, to trouble themselves so little as they do about the course of their next-door and over-the-way neighbours' lives. We may, with justice, retort that, though we do not lavish sympathy - a gift, by-the-by, which, proffered as it generally is, wounds at least as often as it heals - although we do not lavish sympathy upon our neighbours in time of suffering, we do not day by day, and even night by night, subject them to persistent, pruriently inquisitive espionage of the paltry and yet persecuting kind which obtains in the country - that in no part of the in-inhabited globe can a man enjoy more undisturbed freedom of thought and rational action than he can in London.
    Still there is something sound at the bottom of the country-people's feeling. From a Christian point of view, at any rate, it does seem sad that three millions and more of people should be crowded together in this vast, strange jumble of lives which we call 'London' with so little feeling of brotherhood between them. If country people do pry disagreeably into their neighbours' daily life, per contra, they are proudly fond of trumpeting the exploits of any one they can anyhow call our distinguished fellow-townsman; but what man living within a radius of half-a-dozen miles from Charing Cross, feels his heart warming [-237-] towards another man, however distinguished or undistinguished, on the ground that he is a fellow-Londoner?'
    'Alone in London,' in a modified sense, is a phrase that would describe tens of thousands. The married men amongst them might, or might not, be mourned by their families, if they did not come home, or were brought home dead, at night: under similar circumstances, laundresses and landladies, and their slaveys, might pump up a tear for the bachelors, and then begin at once to provide for the next tenant of the chambers or lodgings. A man, of course, would be missed for a day or two, if he did not return to his desk in an office or a bank, or his work at a shop, a factory, a wharf, or a warehouse. In exceptional cases, a kind-hearted employer would take a real interest in the death or sickness of his employé, and do what he could to mitigate the consequences to the dead or sick man's belongings; but in the majority of instances, I fear, the interest would be like that of the attorney who had heard that his clerk was drowned, and who, thereupon, exclaimed, 'Confound the fellow! He had the key of my office in his pocket.' Londoners have the character bf being conceited, but in no place in the world - of course I am speaking of the masses of its inhabitants - is the individuality of a man of less consequence than in London. He is only one of a vast crowd, all hungry for employment; and when his place becomes vacant, it is filled up with a facility that scarcely seems likely to foster conceit.
    But there are people in London far lonelier than those I have referred to - paupers without even the cold comfort [-238-] of having fellow-paupers to talk with - men and women who are almost literally 'alone in London.' Magna civitas, magna solitudo - they drink the bitterest dregs of the meaning of that sententiously epigrammatic definition.
    I was passing one day a public-house, in what was then my parish. Greatly to my astonishment, in the crowd that was pouring out of it, I saw several small shopkeepers whom I knew, and most of whom I had thought very unlikely partem solido demere de die for tippling purposes. I expressed my astonishment to one of them. He very indignantly answered : 'We're a jury, sir. I'm the foreman, and that gentleman, with the broad-brimmed hat and the silk umbrella, is the coroner. It's an inquest, sir. Catch me neglectin' my business at this time o' day, if I could help it, but a poor young fool has been and gone and cut his throat, and we're goin' to view the body.'
    I accompanied the jury to the house of death. By the time we got there the attendant mob had so increased that it was as much as two policemen, stationed on either side of the door like mutes, could do to keep the ragged throng from surging up into the room of death. The lodgers in the house, of course, availed themselves of their privilege to crowd up. The landlady was loud in her professions of regret for the fate of the 'pore young man.' She seemed to think that the coroner had come to take her into custody for allowing any one to commit suicide beneath her roof; and in her anxiety to propitiate him, dusted the rail of the banisters as she went up the stairs before him. The chattering crowd stopped talking [-239-] when the woman opened the door of the garret in which the corpse lay. There was scarcely any furniture in the room, except the bedless truckle bedstead on which the corpse lay, beneath a mouse-coloured rug, with a clotted gash across the throat. The cold white face looked strangely calm to have that broad mark of desperation straggling blue and brown-red beneath it. A blood-rusted razor, clutched in the rigid right hand, lay upon the rug, which was stained with blood. The threadbare, greasy black frock-coat of the deceased was also spotted with blood, and there was more dry blood on the bare breast. The poor creature had owned no shirt or waistcoat. Scarecrow coat and trousers, one brace, a battered, napless hat, a pair of burst, almost soleless boots, and the bone-handled old razor that had put an end to his life, were the only discoverable articles of which he had possession when he made up his mind to kill himself.
    There he lay, looking, as I have said, most strangely calm. His was no 'lovely appearance of death' - there was no positive peace in it; but there was a negative tranquillity in the impassive features, which was almost more blood-curdling than a frozen look of horror would have been. We held our breath as we stood crowded in that gloomy garret. Winter sunshine fell on its grime-clouded window, and made a faint little patch of chequered, dingy light upon the rotten, dusty floor; but the icy face of the corpse was the only thing that lighted the dark bedstead. It was a fearfully wasted face, a deplorably care-furrowed face; but now that the cares that had furrowed it were past, a long-obliterated look of refinement [-240-] seemed to have come to the surface again; and a juryman muttered, 'Poor beggar, he couldn't have been thirty.' No one could speak with certainty as to his age, however - no one knew anything about any part of his life except the last dreary week of it. There he lay, slain by his own hand - a fellow-creature who could no longer endure the life he led amongst his fellows in the richest city in the world, and so had committed suicide just in time to avoid dying of starvation: that was all we knew, or could guess about him. But it was a terrible 'all' for one to think of, standing face to face with that quiet, inexpressibly lonely-looking corpse. Every now and then we read of such cases in the newspapers, and as we cursorily read, we say, with a half-conventional sorrow, 'How very sad - how wickedly foolish to destroy the life that God has given them, instead of bearing their trials like men, and waiting for better times!' But I can assure my reader that one does not feel inclined for moralizing of this kind in such a presence as I have just described. Rightly or wrongly, it is not the dead man one is disposed to blame. The anguished spirit that, so short a time before, tenanted the calm corpse which looks so awfully isolated, has gone home and ta'en its wages - but what those wages are, the watcher shrinks from speculating. He thinks rather of the vast pity of Him who has proclaimed Himself a Father to the forsaken. He trembles when he thinks that he, however unwittingly, may have been one of the careless causes that have brought about so terrible a result.
    The landlady's evidence at the inquest ran as follows: - [-241-] 'I don't know the name of the pore young man, sir, nor who he was, nor where he came from. He come to me the last Monday as ever was, and axed me if I could let him have a place to sleep in. He'd a shirt on then, pore young man, and, though I see he were hard up, there was somethin' in his way o' talk that made me think he'd seen better days. "Well, says I, "maybe I can, but you must pay me in adwance, and p'r'aps that'll be hill-conwenient. Well, sir, that pore young man he took out 2¼d., and he said, says he, "That's all I've got." Well, sir, I pitied the pore young man - he was so nicespoken, - so I took his coppers, and I said he might have the garret where you've seen him a-layin' a dead corpse, and I'd trust to him to pay me more when he'd got it. "You won't have to wait long," says he - wild-like, I remembers now; but then I thought he was in speedy expectations o' gittin' work. Well, sir, I took him up to the room where you've seen him a-layin', and says I - for I couldn't help liking that pore young man - "I'm sorry things ain't more comforbler; but when you git your work, I'll see if I can't find you a few more things." "Oh," says he, wery weary-like, I remembers now, "I only want to git a rest, and I can sleep here as well as on a bed o' down." Them was his wery expressions. Well, sir, he stayed in his room all Monday. Tuesday mornin' he went out, and when he come back, though he'd got his coat buttoned up, I could see that he'd got rid of his shirt. That didn't make me feel comforble about my rent, though nobody can't say I didn't pity that pore young man. Wednesday and Thursday he was out all [-242-] day, and I began to hope that he'd got work; but when he come back of the Thursday, he looked that dragged and famished, I could see he hadn't, and so I made up my mind to speak to him about lookin' for other lodgin's yesterday mornin'. You may think, sir, what a turn I got when I went into his room, and see him a-layin' on the bed with his throat cut, and the wery razor he'd done it with in his own hand, and my bedclothes spi'lt with the blood he'd splashed about. I calls up the other lodgers, and they all see him, too, jest as he's a-layin' now, cept that the blood hadn't clotted; and Mrs Jack (she's got my parlour) ran for the pollis, and Jack run for the doctor. And that's all I know about that pore young man. If you was to ax me questions for a week, sir, I couldn't tell you no more, and I wouldn't tell you no less, and that I'll take my davy of, sir.'
    The lodgers, and the policeman, and the surgeon who had been called in, gave their evidence next; but it was merely a corroboration of the landlady's. No one knew anything of the history of the poor self-destroyer, except its calamitous climax. The coroner summed up, suggesting the usual charitable verdict - charitable, but with some amount of fear of personal responsibility lurking in it. 'People must be insane, or they wouldn't rush out of a world in which we get on decently well, and which we help to manage,' is the average juryman's argument. One juryman, however, was obstinate. 'I don't think the young fellow was silly,' he said. It's plain that, somehow, he couldn't get a living, and so he thought, instead of starving, he'd save himself trouble by killing himself. [-243-] It goes against my conscience to find him insane. From his p'int o' view his conduct seems sensible like.' Such reasoning, of course, was overruled in time, and the usual verdict was returned. It fell to my lot to bury that unfortunate young man - saved by that verdict from the ignominy - brutal ignominy, I think - then often heaped upon the corpse of a wilful self-destroyer. Seldom have I performed a service sadder to myself, or been better able to understand the superstitious feeling - absurd but amiable - which prompts prayers for the dead.
    'God pity him,' I found myself saying, as I turned away from the pauper-grave in which lay the nameless corpse, not more alone in London than when it took its last lodging there alive.