Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXX - The Paternosters

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[-368-]

XXX

THE PATERNOSTERS.

'HOW on earth can it be made for the money?' is a remark often made, when the money has been paid, by the purchasers of 'cheap, natty-looking' articles. Such articles, in reality, are not cheap, because they are not really made, but simply put together with sufficient showiness and adhesiveness to last until they have been bought. When the bloom has suddenly vanished, and the dissolution of continuity suddenly takes place, the buyers who, fancying that they had got unheard-of bargains, had bestowed cheap pity on the makers of the cheap wares, proceed to lavish unmeasured abuse upon those 'knavish' people. But if the conditions under which such scamped work is 'finished' at the East End were generally known, a good many of its disappointed - after all, the prices given being taken into consideration, not really defrauded - purchasers would still, I think, continue to pity 'the poor creatures who made it.'
    [-369-] One day a ragged, dirty little toddler - so little that, after  having drummed in vain upon the door, she was obliged to ask a passer-by to use the knocker for her - came to my house, and told the servant that she had been sent to 'fetch the parson.'
    When I went out to the poor little woman, she told me that I must come at once, because mother was taken so bad - father would have come, but he was too busy, she was to say, and she must hurry back to her work - poor little toddler - so would I come at once, please, because, please, she'd to show me where it was?
    She gave me the name of her mother, and the name of the street to which she was to take me; but I recognized neither. Paternoster was the surname - not so exceptional, I have found, as I thought it then.
    As I walked back with the poor little thing, I could see that, anxious as she was about her mother, and impressed though she was with the necessity of returning speedily to her 'work,' she could not help enjoying the brief respite from it which she had got, and also the 'sensational' importance of having been 'sent for the parson.' She piloted me into a stifling little street leading out of the Old Bethnal Green Road. The street was unpaved, dusty, pitted with cracked, desiccated mud-puddles, and littered with stinking herring-heads and wilted outside cabbage-leaves. Most of the mean, black-jaundiced houses on both sides had weavers' many-paned, horizontally-oblong casements in their upper floors, although silk-weavers no longer constituted the bulk of the street's swarming, struggling, half-starving population. My [-370-] little guide steered me up a filthy, crooked, crazy staircase to an upper floor so lighted, and into a room that smelt of sawdust, shavings, glue, shellac, rancidly-oiled metal, and all kinds of rankly or mustily malodorous muddle. This was the workshop of the Paternosters - their kitchen and meal-room, also the bed-room of some of them - the rest huddled at night in the smaller inner room, in which, the door being ajar, I could hear poor Mrs Paternoster gasping for a breath of fresh air.
    As soon as we entered the workshop, my guide, little Polly Paternoster, went back to her place at the bench, and hopped on to the dirty, splintered egg-box which brought her up to the level of her 'work,' like a weary little trained finch, compelled to begin drawing up its little bucket once more. Small as Polly Paternoster was, there was a smaller Jane Paternoster hard at work next to her at the bench. Hard at work, but, oh, so wearily at work. Poor little Jane seemed to grudge the 'outing' which Polly had had. If Jane had only known where the parson lived, she would have been sent for him, because Polly's labour was a trifle more valuable than Jane's, and in that family the slightest difference in receipts was of serious importance. A boy of thirteen, another of twelve, and two other girls a year or two older than Polly, were the rest of the young workers - poor stunted little creatures all of them, and with that dreary half-knowing, half-stupefied look which premature care prints on children's faces. The father was stooping to take a glue-pot off the fire when I went in, and until he turned round, I thought that he was a boy too - he was [-371-] so narrow across the back. His apron was ragged, but the trousers it professed to protect were more tattered still. Between his high, cramped shoulders, which looked as if they would soon meet beneath his nose, there drooped one of the saddest faces I ever saw in my life - the face of a thoroughly beaten man. Not that there was any acute sorrow visible in it. The eyes were dull, and the general expression of the haggard, unshaven face was simply stolid. But a dismal biography was written in its dirty crow's-feet and crossing wrinkles - a life of daylong struggles for daily bread continued for years, with an ever-haunting anxiety that, when the high-pressure work, in which no workman's pride could be taken as honest work, at last was done, even the wretched price given for such work might not be forthcoming, however he might wheedle the shopkeepers who made their profits out of his necessities and their customers' passion for 'bargains:' a life that had now become utterly hopeless, since his trade was growing worse and worse - the only trade to which his six surviving children could be brought up, the trade in which his other children had died, and in which his wife was dying.
    'She's in there, sir,' said the cabinetmaker, pointing over his shoulder to the inner room, as he went back to his bench with the glue-pot.
    'Thank you, sir, for coming,' panted the poor woman, when I had seated myself beside her wretched bed. Ill as she was, she was fitting in the flimsy blue lining of a cheap work-box. 'Yes, sir, I'm bad - very bad, the doctor says.'
    [-372-] 'What is it?'
    'Something the matter with my heart or my lungs, or both of 'em. I can't make out exactly what from what the doctor says. Of course, I can't expect him to waste much talk on me for what the parish gives him, and such a lot of us to look after. But he's a kind man, sir, for all that. If he could only cure me so as I could get up, that's as much as I could expect, but I shall never get up again, though he says so, he's a kin' - '
    She dropped her work and pressed both her hands on her left breast. Her face and lips turned ashy pale, and the flimsy  bed-covering heaved and fell as if a little piston were throbbing up and down beneath it.
    'It's over now, sir,' she said, resuming her work. 'I'm often took like that. Sometimes I feel so faint that I put my hand to my side in a fright and can't feel a mite o' beat, and then at other times my heart will begin to thump as if it'd burst my ribs out.'
    'Had not you better give over working for a little? Would not you feel a little easier if I lifted that box off the bed?'
    'No, sir, thankee - I might in my fingers, but I shouldn't in my mind. I'll do what I can whilst I last. Look at them out there.'
    'But, surely, your husband wouldn't force you to work, ill as you are?'
    'Force me! poor feller. 'Taint him that forces me. Look at my old man, and them poor kids, hard at it from six in the morning to ten at night, except at meals - and they don't last long, or when my old man is carting the [-373-] things about to the slaughter-houses - and that's harder work than the bench, and more disheartenin'.'
    'Slaughter-houses!' I exclaimed, 'I didn't know that your husband made anything for the butchers.'
    'The cheap furnitur' shops,' she explained, with a glance of astonishment at my ignorance: 'drapers and the rest of 'em, that grind Englishmen's bones to make their bread. And them bazaars are often just as bad. I used to cart about desks and work-boxes and that like to them, when I could get about, and sometimes have to take less than the stuff had cost, because I must take back some kind o' money. Look at my poor old man and them poor children,' she added; 'some of em's gone first, thank God' - and then she broke down, sobbing.
    When she was a little calmed, I said- 'Mrs Paternoster, do you know what your name means?'
    I made the remark in a vague hope that I might be able somehow to utilize it for her comfort; but, as is often the case when one tries to use sacred words as a kind of Abracadabra, I was at first quite unsuccessful.
    'No, sir!' she answered, utterly unable to discover the relevancy of what she plainly thought an unfeelingly trivial question.
    'It means "our Father " - it is the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in Latin.'
    'Is it, sir? I never knew that before. But what do you mean, sir? I always say Our Father, and I've taught children to say it too. That's all the schoolin' they've had - that and the Ten Commandments, and the 'Postles' Creed. If we could spare the money, and God knows [-374-] we can't, we couldn't spare their help in gettin' it, and so we can't send 'em to school.'
    'Well, in your hardest struggles, have not you always had daily bread of some kind - however coarse or scanty?'
    'No, that we haven't! Many and many's the time we ye gone without. My poor children! And what better have they to look to? Things are getting worse instead of better. If it didn't seem mean to want to get away and leave 'em in it, I should be glad to think I was goin' soon where the other poor things is - but they ain't poor now, thank God. And then there's my poor old man!'
    And again the poor woman began to sob so bitterly that I grew alarmed.
    'He seems a very civil, hard-working man,' I answered, blurting out the first commonplace I could think of at all consolatory.
    'Yes, that he is,' she sobbed, trying hard to gulp down her sobs, 'and when me and John was courtin', he could hold his head up, and look any man in the face, and give him back his answer. The spirit hadn't been taken out of him by them slaughterers - begging and praying they'd buy what him and the kids and me have been working our fingers off over. He was earning good wages for good work then, and now, if he could get such work again - which he couldn't, try as he might, - I've seen him fit to cry because he couldn't do it. His hand is out, he says, and that must be a sore downcome for a man.'
    [-375-] 'Does he make the best use of what you do earn?' I inquired, in the character of moral censor.
    'Best use!' answered the wife in scorn. 'He'd be puzzled to make a bad use of it, poor John! If slaving your arms and your legs off and then going without grub, is wasting your money, that's how John wastes his. He never did drink, but now it's often he don't taste a half-pint of beer from week's end to week's end.'
    The poor woman's ardent advocacy of her husband's moral character had brought on palpitation of the heart once more. When I had done the little I could to relieve her, I remained as still as I could in the stifling room - meanwhile watching the wearily persistent industry that was going on, without a smile, almost without a word - except a rare feeble attempt at a 'bit of fun,' or young-sisterly snarl, between little Jane and little Polly - in the hot outer room, whose atmosphere did not purify that of ours by its many-scented, sluggish overflowings.
    Both for the invalid's sake and my own, I tried to open the single small back-window of the inner room; but it was immovable. If I could have opened it, however, the air it would have let in might have been even worse than what we were breathing. The grimy window looked out on a tiny, walled-in, ink-black backyard - so far as its colour could be discovered in the midst of its piled-up heaps of ashes and garbage of all kinds, sweltering beneath the smoky sunlight of a grilling East-end summer's day.
    When Mrs Paternoster could speak once more, I asked [-376-] her whether her husband had been in what she called 'good work' when they were married.
    'He'd just lost it, sir, but no fault of his own, and I thought he'd get it again. If I'd known he wouldn't, I wouldn't have drawed back. A girl likes to get married anyhow to the chap she's fond of; and John's been a good husband s'far's ever he could. What he could do, he's done, poor feller. But it's been a hard life. Ah, sir, it's a easy thing for them as are sure of it to talk about praying to God for your daily bread!'
    If I had told her that I still believed that God would give their daily bread to all who humbly asked Him for it, and did their best to earn it, should I have been telling the truth? Even so, could I have explained to her satisfaction, or my own, how it was that she and hers had often gone without daily bread? Instead, I said,- 
    'If you have been forced to go without literal daily bread, nothing can rob you of the Bread of Life, if you will only take it.'  I was not sure that I should be understood, but the woman's eyes instantly lighted up.
    'Ah, sir,' she cried, 'talk to me about Christ - that's why I sent for you. He seems nearer like than God. I read about Him in the Testament, when I've a chance, but that ain't often, and John can't spare time to read to me, and the children can't read. I should like to go of a Sunday to church or chapel or anywheres, just to hear about Him, but we've to work best part of Sunday to get along anyhow, and then in the evenin' John says we hain't clothes fit for church. "Why, John, says I, "you don't mind your rags when you go about week-[-377-]days." "That don't matter," says he, "'cept that the poorer you looks, the more they screws you down. Let the kids have a breath of air when they can get it, Molly." And so when it's dusk, we slip out and slink about the streets as if we was ashamed of ourselves, though it's no particular harm we're doin' - it'd be a good thing for the children if they could get a breath of fresh air once in a way, but there ain't much o' that where we can get to. I'd rather be in church, if it was only for the quiet and the rest. But there I'm talking as if I was about again, and yet I'm sure I never shall be. John used to be a churchgoer, but he's got hardened against the Bible, poor feller, because life's been so hard to him. "Oh, yes," he'll say, in a pet likes "I don't doubt God's good to them as He's made well-off, but what's that to us?" But it's different with me. Now my only comfort is to hear about Him as was poor, too, and yet's waiting for poor folks in the happy place he's got ready for em.'
    'Yes, think of what He suffered!'
    'Ah, that  he did, or how could any of us have a hope of a better world than this? And that would be a poor look-out, I expect, for most of us. And yet, sir-'
    'Well, and yet?'
    'I'm half afraid to say it. It seems as if I wasn't thankful to Him for what He's done. And yet sometimes, when I'm half-choked - 'specially on a day like this - I can't help thinking that if He hadn't where to lay his head, He could wander about in the fresh air and pick lilies of the field. And then, if there was such lots of bad men set against Him, He'd some - men, and women, [-378-] and children - that was fonder of Him than anybody's been fond of anybody before or since.'
    '"And they all forsook Him and fled," and, patient as He was, He was forced to cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" What loneliness that any one has felt could be like that - to Him? I don't wonder at your feeling lonely, but at any rate you have your husband and children close to you. You love them, and I have no doubt they love you.'
    'Yes, sir, that we do, but then you see, sir, people that are driven about from pillar to post like us hain't no time to be fond of one another. If you don't get snappish to one another, you get hard somehow. I mustn't talk for a bit - I want quietin' - read me a chapter, please, sir - out of the Revelations.'
    The Apocalypse - I am not the first to remark - is the favourite book of believers in the Bible who are worsted in the humblest of life's struggles. They find no fault - they find a charm - in its material images : in splendour and purity so utterly beyond the scope of their experience in any way as to become ideal to them. They know nothing of the controversies that have raged, and go on raging, over the Apocalypse's predictions; the prophecy they read in it is one of solace after affliction, of a happy home for ever with Christ for those who sincerely, however ignorantly, wish to do His will.
    I opened Mrs Paternoster's Testament, turned over the leaves, and began almost at random at the fourth verse of the twenty-first chapter of the Revelation:-
    'And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and [-379-] there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.'
    'Ah, sir, that's beautiful,' said the poor woman faintly, but with a face that shone with joy, as if it had been transfigured. 'I feel as if I could go to sleep now, and dream I was in heaven; and if I was to wake there, how happy! I feel as if I could lay on my left side again, my heart's going so easy.'
    She struggled over on to her left side, and fell asleep; whilst I went out of the room on tiptoe, and told Paternoster that it would be well to let his wife take her rest for some time without disturbance. A useless caution; the next day I learnt that when Paternoster next spoke to his wife he found that she had entered into the rest that can never be broken.