Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   MY meeting with poor mother was accidental. It was Saturday night, and I was coming from Highgate. As I came up with her just as I could guess it, it was half-past eight, and so I told her. "Heart alive of me, you don't say so ! I'm much obliged to you, I'm sure! " replied she, and then she mended her pace so resolutely that, had I not mended mine also, she would have been ahead and out of sight in the dark in a very little while. The reason why I mended my pace was this: it had been a dull and. threatening evening, and within the last few minutes rain had set in and was falling faster and faster. Though not fashionably attired, the female who had asked what o'clock it was, was decent and respectable looking, and I resolved to offer her a share of my umbrella.
   "I don't know how far we may be going the same way, ma'am; but as far as that may be you are very welcome to the shelter of my umbrella, if you like to accept it."
   "Thank you kindly, sir," replied she. "I'm going all the way to the Lower Road, worse luck ! and if you would have no objection to this little basket, it would be a real favour. I'm neither sugar nor salt, as the saying is. But to tell you the truth, young man, not expecting a fall of anything, when I set out I put on my best bonnet; and if it gets sopped, and the green runs into the straw, I should never forgive myself. Not that finery troubles me only it looks so not to have a decent rag to come out ill."
   I certainly was not aware of the basket when I made her the offer, but though of the ordinary family marketing sort, it was not full-sized, and the lappets of her shawl nearly covered it. So I assured her that I had not the least objection to the basket, and that it only gave me concern lest it should be fatiguingly heavy.
   "There's nothing at all in it, barring the basin for my butter," replied she, pleasantly.
   "But you don't mean to say, ma'am, that you come all the way from the Lower Road to Highgate to fetch butter ?" I asked.
   "Lord love the man! no," replied my free-spoken, little old woman. "It's nothing to carry, and, by bringing it with me, I am able to do my errands at once, for if there is one thing I don't like more than another, it is running in and out like a dog in a fair on Saturday night. Where there's eight of 'em, as is the case with me, sir, and three only able to wash themselves, and they not always willing, and requiring to be looked after with the eyes of a hawk, there's enough to do without running about the streets half the night." Seeing that I was expected to say something, I remarked "that doubtless a family of eight was a heavy responsibility."
   "Eight? Why, there are eleven, and that's speaking only of those alive," replied the chatty old soul, proudly.
   "I've got a boy and a gal married, and a third that, so she says, has reasons to be in expectation of it. That's the one that I've been to up the hill with her frock and things to-night."
   "What, her wedding frock ?" I asked.
   "Bless the man! no; her starched lilock. Catch her being married in a lilock. She's got too much of her sister Ellen about her for that, though it is to be hoped she'll know better how to take care of it if ever she has the same luck. So her father told her the last time she came out for a holiday with lavender kid gloves on her hands, above all things. ' You'll bring your noble nine-pence to nothing, Mary Ann, if you don't watch it pretty close,' said he. ' Work away while you're able, as the little hymn says; you'd better have saved your money and put something on your back, miss.' But it's like talking to a post-in at one ear and out at the other. Not that she's at all a bad girl. Six in family to cook for, and two in a perambulator between dinner and tea invariably when it is the least fine, Highgate Hill being not the smallest of hills to push it up and down, and both of them so fat that their legs bow under them, is no joke at seven pounds a year, and her washing and ironing done at home. It's horse work, that's what I call it. I made the remark only this night in her kitchen, which -I will give her her due-is so clean that you might freely take your dinner off the floor boards, and you can see yourself in her tins, even to her cullinder. ' Mary Ann,' said I, 'are you aware that this makes three pair of boots as good as new, besides the kid and spring sides that Ellen gave you, in a single quarter ?' ' Well, I can't help it,' said she; ' you shouldn't have got me a place in such a gravelly part.' ' Well, gravelly or not gravelly, Mary Ann, your father declares that the next pair shall be all leather in the uppers, and with tips and sparrow-bills.' Not that he would be seen doing such a thing, for a better father and one prouder of his gals never stept." I don't mean to assert that my little old woman spoke at this length without pause or interruption; but, as my share in the conversation was limited almost entirely to such common-place interjections as " Oh ! " "Exactly ! " and "Indeed!" I have not thought it worth while to record them. Now, however, that an opportunity presented itself, I thought I might venture to say a good word for the damsel of gravelly ways.
   "There's one consideration, however, ma'am; if the young person of whom you speak is of no assistance to you, she has ceased to be a hindrance," said I.
   "Boots, boots; nothing but boots," continued she, heedless of my observation, and evidently taking up the thread of her discourse where she had let it fall slack, "it's just the bit of victuals, and the rent, and the boots, and there you are. I'm sure it's a mercy that their father has a regular seat of work, and is not in and out all his life, like many others in the tailoring trade. To be sure, it's piece, and therefore not so brisk sometimes as at others; but you might set it down all the year round at a pound, anyhow, which is not so bad in the slop times we live ill."
   "But surely a pound a week is not the whole of your income," said I, " you have other sources of assistance."
   "Sources of---"
   "Ay! Amongst the eight at home are there none big enough to work ? Have you no boys ?"
   "Two boys; but only one that sauces," replied poor mother; " the other one, Bill, is as civil a lad as you'll find in a day's walk. He's getting a big boy now-much too big for four-and-sixpence and just the slop of tea in the evening, finding his own bread and butter, and walking his legs off with that millinery fly-cage thing chafing holes in the shoulders of his Sunday jacket, because he must go respectable, bless your soul! and a clean shirt three times a week. Believe me, sir, I'd as lief he left as stayed. Two shillings and ninepence for foreparting and bits on the heels only last week, and this week leaking again in a manner that went to your heart when he came home to see his poor sopped feet. 'Why you'd better be a coal-boy, Bill,' said I, 'or work up there at the wood-chopper's, than be such a whitened sepulchre as you are-genteel, and with fancy caps and falderals in your basket, and all the while tired as any dog, and with the heels all ground out of those new worsted stockings.' ' You let me alone, mother,' is the answer he makes. I ain't a fool, I don't have my tea in the same room where the machines are working for nothing. Just you stay till I get an insight; then I'll talk to him.' So he put on his brother's, while I took his back and told the nasty, cheating fellow what I thought of him. ' However you could sit there and take a poor soul's two-end-ninepence,' said I, 'well knowing that the leather you put was not thicker than brown paper, and the stitches you might draw out with your teeth, gets over me.' And there they are, coming to fifteenpence ever since Thursday; and that idle riff-raff about the house like a great monkey, and shoeless; and ours, the most particular of landlords, looking over the wall and seeing the shelf of the kitchen cupboard in the act of being sawn up for a rabbit-hutch; and it was only his presence of mind in calling it a meat-safe, and pleading dampness of the kitchen shelf as regards victuals as an excuse for the alteration, that saved a fine row. Ah ! he's a dear boy. He's a blue hen's chick, if ever a poor soul was troubled with one." It was somewhat difficult to follow my little old woman. The "blue hen's chick," and "the riff-raff," and " the great monkey and shoeless," were, I presumed, identical. To make quite sure, however, I made the remark that it was a great shame, and that he was old enough to do better.
   "Old enough ? why, let me see, sir-why, let me see, that boy was three years old in January as the first Exhibition was opened in May, because I remember making the remark that if the Exhibition had been opened just three months to the day earlier, itwould have come on Jack's birthday. Pollyis eighteen, and yes-no, therewas nobody between Polly and Jack, which makes him sixteen come the time. That makes Bill fourteen in August, of course. And the difference between the brothers! The number of places that eldest one has had is past all belief. Not a bad boy in the main, you see, sir, but such a spirit. I'm sure his last place but two was as comfortable a place as any boy could wish. That was at the fishmonger's near the Post Office, as you may perhaps know, sir ? Well, John, he wanted Easter Monday, which, very naturally, wasn't convenient, and, instead, they set him cleaning fish, there being a great supper somewhere. Well, sir, there was nine pounds of fine eels in a tub standing on the edge of the sink, and what did the rascal do before he went to his dinner but take up the trap out of the waste-pipe and tilt the tub on its side, thereby getting the sack on the spot, besides choking the drainage, and costing us, from first to last, seven-and-twenty shillings."
   "That prank cost him something as well, I should imagine," said I; "a few sore bones, eh ?"
   "Lor bless you, no! " replied the confiding old soul; "we daren't touch him, because, you see, my dear sir; he's all for the sea. Why, when that boy was only ten years old, and he lived up here at Crummles's, the confectioner's, and got turned away for some missing sausage- rolls, he never came home, though the rumpus was in the morning. Eight o'clock at night, nine o'clock, still no Jack; and then, come ten, his father went down; and, behold you! there were the shutters up, and the girl going for the beer. So he crossed over to her, and then it came out. You can put them on to fry while I am gone,' says he, when he went out; but they might as well have laid raw in the cupboard for all a mouthful of it that was touched that night; and so you would have said had you seen his face when he came back and told me. Ellen and her beau were there at the time, which accounted for the lamb chops for supper, and Sheffield himself, who, though in a large way as a haberdasher, has no more pride about him than you or me, at once got up and put on his great coat, and out they went, hunting high and low to find him till a quarter to one o'clock, when home they came, empty handed. Never shall I forget that night, and how I paced the room thinking of a thousand things, and suicide being the idea uppermost; so that it was only on Sheffield's solemn promise of the drags as soon as daylight that I could be persuaded to lie down. Well, sir; and what was the upshot? Why, at twenty minutes past eight, and just as we had all set down to a wretched breakfast, a knock came at the door that sent all our hearts into our mouths, and, lo and behold you! master Jack. Not downcast and with his eyes swelled out of his head with crying, as you might have expected, but bold as brass, and dressed in a blue guernsey and a blue cloth cap with anchor buttons, which he had sold his good jacket and the boots off his feet to buy. There he stood on the mat, before quite a passage full of us, holding on to the door-knob, and saying it wasn't worth while coming in any further, as he had merely come to bid us good-bye; and it was only when he was begged and entreated into the parlour, and I had got him to swallow a cup of tea and to eat a bit or two of toast, that he up and confessed that he had firmly made up his mind to sail all round the world; that he was a bad boy, and didn't think it likely that he should ever be better; and that he thought the best thing would be to cast himself on some desolate island out Australia way. You laugh, sir! Well, Sheffield, he laughed, till we came to search his pockets and found a jack-knife with a bit of string through the handle, and some filthy black tobacco for chewing, and a bit of Indian ink and a needle, ready to dot the anchor on his arm; and then we found that it was no laughing matter. ' If he's bent on it, let him go,' Sheffield said. But, as I remarked at the time, when you come to have them of your own, my good sir, you will alter your tune.' No seafaring boys for me, thank you. Lor bless us, no! I should get the creeps, and so would his father, every time the wind blew. Who he takes after is a puzzle to us, except it is his godfather, that we called up from his boats at Lambeth Stairs and got to stand at his christening at the old church for a shilling. So it is, anyhow; and to this very day he's as strong after the sea as ever. Just put him out in the least, or ask him to clean so much as a window or a knife and fork when it don't suit him, and he flies in a passion, and these are the first words out of his mouth, 'I aint a goin' to stand this. Give me my cap, and I'll go at once and get a ship.' Bless you, you can't think how careful we are obliged to be."
   "Well, you'll pardon my saying so," I ventured to remark; " but, from what you have told me of your son John, I think that Mr. Sheffield was quite right when he said, ' If he's bent on going, let him go.' If I were his father, the next time he demanded his cap he should not be kept waiting for it."
   "As a stranger, no doubt you would, sir, but when he is known as well as we know him, he is not at all a hard boy to manage. Only give him a good word and he'll turn the mangle like a lamb, or fill your tubs, or help Louisa home with the clean linen, without so much as a wry face. His savagest times are when he doesn't get his victuals to the minute. That's where Mary Ann puts me out so on Saturday night. I feel it my duty to see her once a week, and there goes two or three hours out of the worst night in the whole week. How do I make it out to be the worst night ? Oh, my good sir, it is not me that makes it the worst; it is the flock I've got to struggle with. Life is but a span' I hear sometimes at chapel, on Sunday nights. I don't know what the correct measurement of a span may be, but to my mind it is a week. It is a sinful thing to say; but what's my life but a week ? I begin it on Monday morning, and I finish up on Saturday night. It's like the judgment day; there it is at the end of the long lane that's got no turning, blocking it up so that you can't get a peep beyond it. The bit of money you get, counting even Bill's four-and-sixpence, and the trifle of money one can earn at nine-pence a dozen, and those chiefly sheets, as I assure you, and large things that wring your arms off, just carries you through the lane, and not an inch to spare-not half an inch-not even so much as an extra half pint of beer, though standing in that cold wash-house till you felt like standing in ice. It looks a lot-it certainly does look a lot, when it's put altogether on the table on Saturday night; but it's all laid out, as the saying is, before a farthing is touched; and then there's grumbling and black looks from Master John, who bought a sprigged waistcoat while at the fishmonger's, and which naturally went to make up the deficiency; and there it lays, eating its head off with interest. And there it must lay-for tonight, at all events, let him look ever so black; for, believe me or believe me not, sir, by the time I've taken in a bit of something for supper, and settled with the butcher, and got what I want at Gawler's, and fetched Bill's boots, if I've got eighteenpence more than will pay for the baking to-morrow, I shall think myself lucky. Oh ! you don't turn down here, sir? Well, good-night, young gentleman, and thank you kindly for my part of the umbrella."