It was a most woeful picture, men and women waiting in the cold grey end of the day for a pauper’s shelter from the night, and I confess it almost unnerved me. Like the boy before the dentist’s door, I suddenly discovered a multitude of reasons for being elsewhere. Some hints of the struggle going on within must have shown in my face, for one of my companions said, “Don’t funk; you can do it.”
The People of the Abyss
Of course I could do it, but I became aware that even thru’pence in my pocket was too lordly a treasure for such a throng; and, in order that all invidious distinctions might be removed, I emptied out the coppers. Then I bade good-bye to my friends, and with my heart going pit-a-pat, slouched down the street and took my place at the end of the line. Woeful it looked, this line of poor folk tottering on the steep pitch to death; how woeful it was I did not dream.
Next to me stood a short, stout man. Hale and hearty, though aged, strong-featured, with the tough and leathery skin produced by long years of sunbeat and weatherbeat, his was the unmistakable sea face and eyes; and at once there came to me a bit of Kipling’s “Galley Slave”: -
“By the brand upon my shoulder, by the gall of clinging steel;
By the welt the whips have left me, by the scars that never heal;
By eyes grown old with staring through the sun-wash on the brine,
I am paid in full for service.. ”
How correct I was in my surmise, and how peculiarly appropriate the verse was, you shall learn.
“I won’t stand it much longer, I won’t,” he was complaining to the man on the other side of him. “I’ll smash a windy, a big ’un, an’ get run in for fourteen days. Then I’ll have a good place to sleep, never fear, an’ better grub than you get here. Though I’d miss my bit of bacey” – this as an after-thought, and said regretfully and resignedly.
“I’ve been out two nights now,” he went on; “wet to the skin night before last, an’ I can’t stand it much longer. I’m gettin’ old, an’ some mornin’ they’ll pick me up dead.”
He whirled with fierce passion on me: “Don’t you ever let yourself grow old, lad. Die when you’re young, or you’ll come to this. I’m tellin’ you sure. Seven an’ eighty years am I, an’ served my country like a man. Three good-conduct stripes and the Victoria Cross, an’ this is what I get for it. I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead. Can’t come any too quick for me, I tell you.”
The moisture rushed into his eyes, but, before the other man could comfort him, he began to hum a lilting sea song as though there was no such thing as heartbreak in the world.
Given encouragement, this is the story he told while waiting in line at the workhouse after two nights of exposure in the streets.
As a boy he had enlisted in the British navy, and for two score years and more served faithfully and well. Names, dates, commanders, ports, ships, engagements, and battles, rolled from his lips in a steady stream, but it is beyond me to remember them all, for it is not quite in keeping to take notes at the poorhouse door. He had been through the “First War in China,” as he termed it; had enlisted with the East India Company and served ten years in India; was back in India again, in the English navy, at the time of the Mutiny; had served in the Burmese War and in the Crimea; and all this in addition to having fought and toiled for the English flag pretty well over the rest of the globe.
Then the thing happened. A little thing, it could only be traced back to first causes: perhaps the lieutenant’s breakfast had not agreed with him; or he had been up late the night before; or his debts were pressing; or the commander had spoken brusquely to him. The point is, that on this particular day the lieutenant was irritable. The sailor, with others, was “setting up” the fore rigging.
Now, mark you, the sailor had been over forty years in the navy, had three good-conduct stripes, and possessed the Victoria Cross for distinguished service in battle; so he could not have been such an altogether bad sort of a sailorman. The lieutenant was irritable; the lieutenant called him a name – well, not a nice sort of name. It referred to his mother. When I was a boy it was our boys’ code to fight like little demons should such an insult be given our mothers; and many men have died in my part of the world for calling other men this name.
However, the lieutenant called the sailor this name. At that moment it chanced the sailor had an iron lever or bar in his hands. He promptly struck the lieutenant over the head with it, knocking him out of the rigging and overboard.
And then, in the man’s own words: “I saw what I had done. I knew the Regulations, and I said to myself, ‘It’s all up with you, Jack, my boy; so here goes.’ An’ I jumped over after him, my mind made up to drown us both. An’ I’d ha’ done it, too, only the pinnace from the flagship was just comin’ alongside. Up we came to the top, me a hold of him an’ punchin’ him. This was what settled for me. If I hadn’t ben strikin’ him, I could have claimed that, seein’ what I had done, I jumped over to save him.”
Then came the court-martial, or whatever name a sea trial goes by. He recited his sentence, word for word, as though memorised and gone over in bitterness many times. And here it is, for the sake of discipline and respect to officers not always gentlemen, the punishment of a man who was guilty of manhood. To be reduced to the rank of ordinary seaman; to be debarred all prize-money due him; to forfeit all rights to pension; to resign the Victoria Cross; to be discharged from the navy with a good character (this being his first offence); to receive fifty lashes; and to serve two years in prison.
“I wish I had drowned that day, I wish to God I had,” he concluded, as the line moved up and we passed around the corner.
At last the door came in sight, through which the paupers were being admitted in bunches. And here I learned a surprising thing: this being Wednesday, none of us would be released till Friday morning. Furthermore, and oh, you tobacco users, take heed: we would not be permitted to take in any tobacco. This we would have to surrender as we entered. Sometimes, I was told, it was returned on leaving and sometimes it was destroyed.
The old man-of-war’s man gave me a lesson. Opening his pouch, he emptied the tobacco (a pitiful quantity) into a piece of paper. This, snugly and flatly wrapped, went down his sock inside his shoe. Down went my piece of tobacco inside my sock, for forty hours without tobacco is a hardship all tobacco users will understand.
Again and again the line moved up, and we were slowly but surely approaching the wicket. At the moment we happened to be standing on an iron grating, and a man appearing underneath, the old sailor called down to him, —
“How many more do they want?”
“Twenty-four,” came the answer.
We looked ahead anxiously and counted. Thirty-four were ahead of us. Disappointment and consternation dawned upon the faces about me. It is not a nice thing, hungry and penniless, to face a sleepless night in the streets. But we hoped against hope, till, when ten stood outside the wicket, the porter turned us away.
“Full up,” was what he said, as he banged the door.
Like a flash, for all his eighty-seven years, the old sailor was speeding away on the desperate chance of finding shelter elsewhere. I stood and debated with two other men, wise in the knowledge of casual wards, as to where we should go. They decided on the Poplar Workhouse, three miles away, and we started off.
As we rounded the corner, one of them said, “I could a’ got in ’ere to-day. I come by at one o’clock, an’ the line was beginnin’ to form then – pets, that’s what they are. They let ’m in, the same ones, night upon night.”
CHAPTER VIII – THE CARTER AND THE CARPENTER
The Carter, with his clean-cut face, chin beard, and shaved upper lip, I should have taken in the United States for anything from a master workman to a well-to-do farmer. The Carpenter – well, I should have taken him for a carpenter. He looked it, lean and wiry, with shrewd, observant eyes, and hands that had grown twisted to the handles of tools through forty-seven years’ work at the trade. The chief difficulty with these men was that they were old, and that their children, instead of growing up to take care of them, had died. Their years had told on them, and they had been forced out of the whirl of industry by the younger and stronger competitors who had taken their places.
These two men, turned away from the casual ward of Whitechapel Workhouse, were bound with me for Poplar Workhouse. Not much of a show, they thought, but to chance it was all that remained to us. It was Poplar, or the streets and night. Both men were anxious for a bed, for they were “about gone,” as they phrased it. The Carter, fifty-eight years of age, had spent the last three nights without shelter or sleep, while the Carpenter, sixty-five years of age, had been out five nights.
But, O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood, with white beds and airy rooms waiting you each night, how can I make you know what it is to suffer as you would suffer if you spent a weary night on London’s streets! Believe me, you would think a thousand centuries had come and gone before the east paled into dawn; you would shiver till you were ready to cry aloud with the pain of each aching muscle; and you would marvel that you could endure so much and live. Should you rest upon a bench, and your tired eyes close, depend upon it the policeman would rouse you and gruffly order you to “move on.” You may rest upon the bench, and benches are few and far between; but if rest means sleep, on you must go, dragging your tired body through the endless streets. Should you, in desperate slyness, seek some forlorn alley or dark passageway and lie down, the omnipresent policeman will rout you out just the same. It is his business to rout you out. It is a law of the powers that be that you shall be routed out.
But when the dawn came, the nightmare over, you would hale you home to refresh yourself, and until you died you would tell the story of your adventure to groups of admiring friends. It would grow into a mighty story. Your little eight-hour night would become an Odyssey and you a Homer.
Not so with these homeless ones who walked to Poplar Workhouse with me. And there are thirty-five thousand of them, men and women, in London Town this night. Please don’t remember it as you go to bed; if you are as soft as you ought to be you may not rest so well as usual. But for old men of sixty, seventy, and eighty, ill-fed, with neither meat nor blood, to greet the dawn unrefreshed, and to stagger through the day in mad search for crusts, with relentless night rushing down upon them again, and to do this five nights and days – O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood, how can you ever understand?
I walked up Mile End Road between the Carter and the Carpenter. Mile End Road is a wide thoroughfare, cutting the heart of East London, and there were tens of thousands of people abroad on it. I tell you this so that you may fully appreciate what I shall describe in the next paragraph. As I say, we walked along, and when they grew bitter and cursed the land, I cursed with them, cursed as an American waif would curse, stranded in a strange and terrible land. And, as I tried to lead them to believe, and succeeded in making them believe, they took me for a “seafaring man,” who had spent his money in riotous living, lost his clothes (no unusual occurrence with seafaring men ashore), and was temporarily broke while looking for a ship. This accounted for my ignorance of English ways in general and casual wards in particular, and my curiosity concerning the same.
The Carter was hard put to keep the pace at which we walked (he told me that he had eaten nothing that day), but the Carpenter, lean and hungry, his grey and ragged overcoat flapping mournfully in the breeze, swung on in a long and tireless stride which reminded me strongly of the plains wolf or coyote. Both kept their eyes upon the pavement as they walked and talked, and every now and then one or the other would stoop and pick something up, never missing the stride the while. I thought it was cigar and cigarette stumps they were collecting, and for some time took no notice. Then I did notice.
From the slimy, spittle-drenched, sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and, they were eating them. The pits of greengage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o’clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.
These two men talked. They were not fools, they were merely old. And, naturally, their guts a-reek with pavement offal, they talked of bloody revolution. They talked as anarchists, fanatics, and madmen would talk. And who shall blame them? In spite of my three good meals that day, and the snug bed I could occupy if I wished, and my social philosophy, and my evolutionary belief in the slow development and metamorphosis of things – in spite of all this, I say, I felt impelled to talk rot with them or hold my tongue. Poor fools! Not of their sort are revolutions bred. And when they are dead and dust, which will be shortly, other fools will talk bloody revolution as they gather offal from the spittle-drenched sidewalk along Mile End Road to Poplar Workhouse.
Being a foreigner, and a young man, the Carter and the Carpenter explained things to me and advised me. Their advice, by the way, was brief, and to the point; it was to get out of the country. “As fast as God’ll let me,” I assured them; “I’ll hit only the high places, till you won’t be able to see my trail for smoke.” They felt the force of my figures, rather than understood them, and they nodded their heads approvingly.
“Actually make a man a criminal against ’is will,” said the Carpenter. “’Ere I am, old, younger men takin’ my place, my clothes gettin’ shabbier an’ shabbier, an’ makin’ it ’arder every day to get a job. I go to the casual ward for a bed. Must be there by two or three in the afternoon or I won’t get in. You saw what happened to-day. What chance does that give me to look for work? S’pose I do get into the casual ward? Keep me in all day to-morrow, let me out mornin’ o’ next day. What then? The law sez I can’t get in another casual ward that night less’n ten miles distant. Have to hurry an’ walk to be there in time that day. What chance does that give me to look for a job? S’pose I don’t walk. S’pose I look for a job? In no time there’s night come, an’ no bed. No sleep all night, nothin’ to eat, what shape am I in the mornin’ to look for work? Got to make up my sleep in the park somehow” (the vision of Christ’s Church, Spitalfield, was strong on me) “an’ get something to eat. An’ there I am! Old, down, an’ no chance to get up.”
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