Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXXV - Bessie Married

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I BEGAN this series of desultory papers with an account of' 'Little Creases.' I will end it with a little further account of her.
    She grew up into a handsome young woman - so handsome that I was very glad when she ceased to be a street-seller. Her grandmother became so infirm both in body and in mind that it was necessary she should have some one always with her. The neighbours advised Bessie to let her be taken into the workhouse, but Bessie would not hear of this; although poor Mrs Jude, in her imbecility, had relapsed into the cantankerousness which was her characteristic before she had come under any softening influences. For Bessie's sake, neighbours would now and then drop in to look after the old woman, but not often, or for long. In their own phrase, it 'worn't pleasant to 'ave their noses snapt off jist for doin' a kindness to the old cat.' So Bessie had [-430-] to give up the wandering life which long habit had made far pleasanter than a sedentary life seemed to her at first, and stay at home to look after, and work hard for, a poor cross old woman who had never shown her much kindness, and who rewarded her kind nurse for her often most disagreeable duties by constant grumpiness and faultfinding, and sometimes by speeches that would have been shamefully insulting if the poor old creature had been responsible for her utterances. When, however, such speeches are only slight exaggerations of utterances which the hearer remembers to have been made when the utterer was responsible, it is difficult to allow at all times full weight to the plea of irresponsibility, and, under any circumstances, such speeches are not pleasant to listen to. Bessie's temper was often sorely tried, but it bore the trial bravely. The goodness of cloth is tested by rubbing it the wrong way, and that is the only infallible mode of testing goodness of temper likewise.
    The indoor work which Bessie did was not all of one kind. She did whatever she could get to do. One of her jobs, I remember, was fireworks-making. A manufacturer of these, on a small scale, lived in Bateman's Rents, and he employed Bessie to stuff his cases. A day or two before one Fifth of November I went into Mrs Jude's room, and found the old woman raking out the little fire, which I learnt Bessie had already lighted five times. 'Tain't any use, sir,' whispered Bessie, with a smile, when I began to remonstrate with the old woman. 'Granny'll feel cold bimeby, an' then she'll be glad on it. I'd keep her warm, if she'd let me, but it puts her out, [-431-] and so I humour her, poor thing.' Mrs Jude had been listening with a face full of suspicion, almost of hatred. Replying to what she had imperfectly overheard, she said angrily, 'Puts it out! Yes, and I means to put it out. I ain't a-goin' to be blowed. up with gunpowder, whilst I've got my five senses left. That's what that gal's doin' it for. And me that's kep' her since she was a babby. She wants to git rid o' me, she do; but she shan't, not whilst I've got my senses. Mayhap, my strength ain't what it was, though Bessie do make me do all the nastiest work - a dozen times and more I've had to see to that fire - and yet she won't give me enough to eat. But I ain't a fool yet, though Bessie'd make folks think so. You're a reg'lar bad gal, Bessie - jest like your wicked mother; but I ain't a-goin' to be blowed up with, gunpowder.'
    And the old woman chuckled, wagged her head, and went on raking out the coals.
    Bessie might, perhaps, have felt uncomfortable if her grandmother had talked in this way before some people; but she knew that I should not attach any weight to what the poor old creature said, and so she said nothing in reply, but went on smuttying her face and fingers at her little table, so littered with powder and blue and whitey-brown serpent cases that it looked like a Lilliputian arsenal.
    I asked Mrs Jude whether she would not let me take the tongs and put the embers back into the grate, on the plea that I felt cold.
    'Ah, well, she wouldn't blow me up while you was [-432-] here,' Mrs Jude answered, giving me the tongs. When I had coaxed the coals into a little flame, she warmed her hands enjoyingly over it, and went on,- 'Everybody's kinder to me than my own flesh and blood. That gal knows how perished I feel, settin' here shiverin' without a fire; but she will make me. If she can't blow me up, she thinks she can make me ketch my death o' cold. She's a downright bad gal - jest like her mother. Twouldn't be safe for me to live with her, if I hadn't my wits about me. But that's what I have, thank God, and I ain't a-goin' to be friz to death, no, nor I ain't a-goin' to be blowed up nayther, and that's what I can tell her!'
    I was foolish enough to try to show the poor old woman the real state of the case - how ludicrously she was deceived, how utterly she misrepresented Bessie. In reply, Mrs Jude jerked up her chin with a scornful though voiceless little laugh, and a wooden look of obstinate incredulity. If I couldn't see things that lay plain before my eyes, why then it was no use talking to me any more about them: that was what poor Mrs Jude's look said. I dropped Bessie, and got the old woman to talk about other matters. Every now and then, as we chatted, she would nod off to sleep, but she often got interested, and talked as sanely as she had ever talked. She proved to be right, and Bessie and I wrong, as to the date of some little occurrence in Bateman's Rents we had been talking about. The poor old woman was delighted at her triumph. The next minute she was floundering in a chaos of curiously distorted and blended recollections; but as we had owned that she had once been right, she [-433-] felt sure that, whatever we might choose to say, we must acknowledge to ourselves, at any rate, that she was always right, and she rode roughshod over us accordingly. She did so with an exultation evidently so pleasant to herself that Bessie and I had not the slightest wish to disturb her belief in her infallibility. From the argumentative vantage-point she thought she occupied she began to look down so complacently on Bessie that I began to hope that Bessie would be spared any more sharp speeches.
    But Bessie washed her gunpowdery hands, went to the cupboard, put some food on a plate, mixed a little weak brandy-and-water, and brought the solid and liquid refreshment to her grandmother, saying cheerily, 'Now then, granny, it's time. The doctor said, you know, that you was to take a little and horfen.' The poor old woman gave a pettish push at the plate and glass, - taking care, however, not to spill the brandy-and-water. 'The doctor didn't say nuffink o' the sort,' she answered testily. 'The doctor don't know nuffink. 'Tain't horfen I gits it. No, I don't. There's nuffink fit to heat in this 'ouse. You're allus a-stuffin' me till I'm fit to bust. And sperrits! - you know I never tasted sperrits in my life. You git 'em in to drink em yourself, and make me your hexcuse; and who's to pay for 'em, I'd like to know? That's how I'm put upon, sir.'
    'Come, granny, take your grub, and drink this up- it'll do you good.'
    'No, I 'ont.'
    But the poor old woman, when left to herself did eat her food, and drink her drink, in slow enjoyment - only  [-434-] complaining of her brandy-and-water, first that it was so strong, it took her breath away; and, next, that it was so weak that she couldn't taste 'nuffink but water spiled.'
    But poor Mrs Jude's temper was soon again ruffled by the appearance of a good-tempered young fellow, who looked rather sheepish when he found that I was there.
    'What is it, Flop?' asked Bessie, who also looked rather shamefaced.
    'Is his legs ready, Bessie?' was the rejoinder.
    Bessie drew two long roughly-sewn empty sacking-bags from under the bed, and Flop (=  Philip) departed. 'Ah, that's the way I'm treated now,' groaned Mrs Jude. 'That gal brings her fellers colloguin' about, and robs me to my wery face.'
    'Why, granny, them ain't yourn, an' they wouldn't be worth much if they was. You see, sir, Flop and his brother is goin' out with a Guy on the Fifth, and so as me and Flop's acquainted, I said I'd do the legs for 'em. Tain't that they want no more shapin' than a roley-poley pudden, but Flop ain't over 'andy with his needle.'
    'And what is Flop?'
    'Well, sir, he ain't doin' nuffink jest at present. A light-porter he were, but he slipped off a ladder and nit the small of his back, and so he lost his place, and now he's lookin' about for another, poor feller. That's why he's a-goin' out with the Guy. He's a wery industr'ous young man, and don't like to set twiddlin' his thumbs.'
    'But what will he get by his Guy?'
    'Oh, mayhap, clear a pound or so, if them Hirish don't set on him, and take it, and spile the Guy. They're that [-435-] spiteful - 'specially when the Guys is about. They makes 'em as rampagious as mad bulls, an' they're savage enough at the best o' times.'
    'Those poor Irish, Bessie. Haven't you learnt to leave them alone yet?'
    'It's them as won't leave us alone, sir. What right has them Romans to hinterfere with us Protestants in our own country? If we likes to carry Guys, and Popes, and Cardinal Wisemans about, and burn 'em arterwards, we've a right to, and serve 'em jolly well right. You was a-preachin' agin the Pope yerself, sir, on'y last Sunday.'
    'I don't think I said that it was a kind or a sensible thing to make a hideous image of him and carry it about to exasperate people who reverence him. You have improved wonderfully since I first knew you, Bessie, but you have a good deal of charity to learn yet. You must remember that Roman Catholics, after all, are fellow-Christians.'
    'Christians! They may call theirselves so; and so you might call yerself a cowcumber, but that wouldn't make ye one.'
    The fear of what might happen to Flop's Guy had so intensified Bessie's dislike of the Irish-originally a merely traditional unreasoning international antipathy, but now disguised under cover of regard for pure doctrine -  that she raised her voice in a way that made me raise my eyes.
    Mrs Jude instantly struck in. The poor old woman chafed under the constant supervision which Bessie's kindness compelled her to keep over her grandmother. [-436-]  There was a chance now, Mrs Jude thought, of her bringing her monitress to book with the interested approval of a bystander, and so she exclaimed with delighted indignation, -
    'Who are you a-talkin' to, you saucy slut? An' you as shammed to set such store on parsons! Is them yer manners?'
    I got the poor old woman into chat again, and presently I read and prayed with her. At first she objected to the reading. The Bible was good, very good, no doubt, she said, but it was no use now to the likes of her. But when she caught familiar phrases, they seemed to soothe her. She nodded her head approvingly, and ceased tapping her fingers with feeble impatience on the arms of her chair. When Bessie and I knelt down, she insisted on kneeling down too. When we rose from our knees, she did not resent the necessary help which Bessie gave her in rising from hcrs. She shook hands with me at parting as if she were quite at peace with herself and every one else once more; but I had hardly got outside the room before I heard her again scolding Bessie, and again obstinately raking out the coals.
    Of course, I had discovered the relation in which Flop' stood to Bessie, and therefore made it my business to make inquiries about him. I found that he was a very worthy young fellow, sober, industrious, and very fond of the handsome young woman I still could not help thinking of, and occasionally speaking of, as 'Little Creases.'
    For a time, like Bessie, he did any odd jobs he could get hold of; but he saved money enough to procure his [-437-] license, and, at last, thanks to the character he received from the firm in whose service he had been as a junior light porter, he was engaged as a conductor for one of the Bow and Stratford omnibuses. Four shillings a day, certain, seemed a handsome income to Bessie-she began to consider Flop quite a person of property. But hard enough he had to work for his 28s. a week - up so early, home so late, that he had scarcely time to court. And worse still, he was as busy on Sundays as on other days. He had to give up coming to church. This was a sore trial to Bessie. It was she who had persuaded Flop to come to church, and, when she could get a neighbour to sit with her grandmother, it had been a great pleasure to her to attend service with her young man.' I asked Flop whether he could not get a Sunday now and then if he asked for it.
    'I could git one, sir, fast enough,' he answered with a grin, 'but I shouldn't have no need to ax for another. "You needn't hurry back" - that's what they'd say to me.'
    Bessie thought that, perhaps, under these circumstances, it would be better if Flop gave up his berth, but just then he had no chance of getting anything else, and so Bessie, who was very fond of her Flop, only half-heartedly advised him to take this course, and he continued a conductor.
    He had behaved very well in reference to Mrs Jude. At first Bessie had said that she could not marry whilst her grandmother was alive. Flop had then proposed that Mrs Jude should live with the young people.
    'No, Flop,' Bessie had answered, 'you're a-goin' to [-438-] marry me, but you ain't bound to marry my granny too.'
    'Well, but she'll be my granny when we're married?'
    'No, Flop, that ain't marriage lor. What's yours is mine, and what's mine's my own. And if she would be, it 'ud be agin the Prayer-Book for you to marry your own grandmother.'
    But Flop took two rooms, one for the old woman, and insisted on being married as soon as he could get a day to be married in. It was not any liking that the old woman had shown for him which made him wish to take her into his home. When he went into hers she would scowl at him all the time he stayed there; talking at him to herself as if he were a villain bent on robbing her of everything she possessed, and bringing down her grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. Flop at last plucked up courage and asked 'at the yard' for a day to get married in. He was told that his employers had no objection to his getting married - that was no concern of theirs - but that he must not waste a minute of their time - time they paid him for - in getting his wife. At last, however, he managed to obtain an hour in the slack part of the day. I married the young couple, and then Flop had to rush back to his monkey-board in his new suit, with a dahlia in his buttonhole - there to be chaffed considerably as he went up and down the road on account of his beamingly swellish appearance; whilst Bessie went back to Bateman's Rents to take off her wedding-clothes, pack up a few articles of furniture, and convey them and her grandmother to their new home.
    The old woman was pleased at first with her new room, [-439-] but soon got an almost fixed notion that the young people who were befriending her were living at her expense, because she missed one or two things she had long been accustomed to in Bateman's Rents. They had been sold for a trifle, because Flop had bought better of the kind. I am afraid that Bessie had not a very lively wedding-day, but, fortunately, Mrs Jude was asleep when Flop came home at night, and when Bessie ran out to meet him, once more in her wedding-gown, London did not hold a happier bride or bridegroom.
    In due course, a Bessie junior made her appearance, Bessie senior was intensely proud of her baby, and talked as if she had suddenly grown ten years older. Flop doted on little Bessie. He did not grumble at having his rest broken by her restlessness and wails; but he did complain when, shortly afterwards, owing to his early departures and late arrivals, he could only see his child asleep. His wife often had great difficulty in preventing him from waking baby up in order to discover whether she took notice' of daddy.' Mrs Jude sometimes made much of her great-granddaughter, and talked to the baby in confidence about the wrongs which Flop and Bessie had done to both of them. Sometimes she seemed quite unconscious of the child's existence, even when it had got her yellow, shrivelled finger in. its pink, plump, crumpled paw, or silverily-slobbering little rosebud of a mouth. At other times Mrs Jude would scowl at the baby as a villanous conspiratrix with its father and mother against her peace of mind and body. And then poor Mrs Jude would rock herself and moan,- 'I wish I was [-440-] dead - I wish I was dead - nobody cares for me - nobody. They'll be glad to git rid on me - nobody, nobody.'
    One Saturday night Flop came home and said, 'I can go to church with you to-morrow, Bessie.'
    'Oh, that is jolly,' answered Bessie; 'but what makes you look so glum, Flop?'
    'They've given me the sack, that's all, Bessie. I axed 'em what they'd got agin me, and they said nothin'. No more they haven't, whatever cheats is about that I'm to suffer for. Nothin', they says, but I needn't come tomorrow - they don't want me any more. Is that a fair way to treat a man? I don't doubt they do git cheated, but I never wronged 'em of a penny. Is that the way to treat a honest man? Let 'em say what they think, and I could answer them fast enough. But, no, they says "nothin'"; and what can I do? There ain't another yard'll take me, turned out o' theirs. "Nothin'" 'on't do for a character in the bus line. It's a cowardly shame - it is, Bessie. There's you, and baby, and that poor old granny o' yourn-'
    Mrs Jude had been roused from sleep by the unwonted loudness of her grandson-in-law's voice. She staggered out of her inside room into the one in which Bessie, rocking the baby, and savagely gesticulating Philip, were sitting. Mrs Jude's contribution to the conversation was more concise than comforting-
    'There, you gal, I allus said that feller was a willin, and now you knows it.'
    Soon afterwards the poor old woman died - waking up once more, just before she died, to a consciousness that [-441-] her dreary life had been made dreary not entirely without fault on her side. 'Ah, sir,' she gasped, 'Bessie's been good, I don't deny, but talk to me about Christ Jesus - He's the only un that can care about me. Bessie don't - nobody - nobody - 'cept Christ Jesus. I'm a lonely old woman - nobody'll miss me. Though I did nuss Bessie from a babby. But there's Christ, as I never did nuffink for. He'll-' And the old woman ceased to speak, for ever - with those poor, pale, peevishly-puckered lips.
    Soon after this I lost sight of my brave Bessie and her honest husband. They went to Liverpool, and then they vanished - in what direction, some strange mischance prevented me from ever learning.
    Bessie had done me so much good when I was a novice in clerical duty that I could never think either honest Flop or even her silverily slobbering baby quite worthy of her; but still I had a hearty liking for all three, for personal as well as relative reasons. I am heartily sorry, therefore, that I cannot finish off with a more definite - pleasantly definite - account of what became of Bessie and her belongings; but throughout these papers I have followed fact instead of fancy, and, therefore, I must finish as I began. My papers have been full of November fog, but if you wish to register honestly the weather of a district in which November fog is the normal atmosphere, it is impossible to keep that fog from recurring, however wearisomely, in your register. But I hope that I have been able to show that the Sun of Righteousness can mellow, gild, even dissipate, the dreariest gloom of East-[-442-] End life; and that, although it is true enough that
    '- misery is trodden on by many,'
it is not true that misery is,
    '-being low, never relieved by any,'
even of those who share, or are only an infinitesimal grade above, the dismal depths of East-End distress.