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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER X THE HEROISM OF THE SLUMS
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In our narrow streets, in our courts and alleys, where the air makes one sick and faint, where the houses are rotten and tottering, where humanity is crowded and congested, where the children graduate in the gutter—there the heights and depths of humanity can be sounded, for there the very extremes of human character stand in striking contrast. Could the odorous canals that intersect our narrow streets speak, they would tell of many a dark deed, but, thank God! of many a brave deed also. Numbers of "unfortunates," weary of life, in the darkness of night, and in the horror of a London fog, have sought oblivion in those thick and poisonous waters. Men, too, weary from the heart-breaking and ceaseless search after employment, and widows broken with hard work, endless toil, and semi-starvation, have sought their doom where the water lies still and deep.

The Hero with the Lavender Suit.

Often in the fog the splash has been heard, but no sooner heard than cries of "Let me die!" "Help! help!" have also risen on the midnight[Pg 183] air. One rough fellow of my acquaintance has saved six would-be suicides from the basin of one canal, and on each occasion he has appeared to give evidence in a police-court. Five times he had given his evidence and quietly and quickly disappeared, but on the sixth occasion he waited about the court for an opportunity of speaking to the magistrate. This was at length given him, when he stated that he thought it about time someone paid him for the loss he sustained in saving these people from the canal. This was the sixth time he had attended a police-court to give evidence, and each time he had lost a day's pay. He did not mind that so very much, as it was but the loss of four shillings at intervals; but this time he had on a new suit, which cost him thirty shillings. He had thrown off his coat and vest before jumping into the water, and someone had stolen them; the dirty water had spoiled his trousers, which he had dried and put on for his Worship to see. The magistrate inspected the garments. They had been originally of that cheap material that costers affect, and of a bright lavender colour. He had jumped into an unusually nasty piece of water. Some tar and other chemicals had been moving on its surface, and his lavender clothes had received full benefit therefrom. The garments had been tight-fitting at the first, but now, after immersion and drying, they were ridiculously small. Even the magistrate had to smile, but he ordered the brave fellow to receive five shillings for expenses and loss of day's work, and ten shillings compensation for damage to his clothing. He looked ruefully at his ruined[Pg 184] clothes and at the fifteen shillings in his hand, and went out of the court. I went to speak to him. "Look here, Mr. Holmes," he said, "fifteen shillings won't buy me a new lavender suit. The next blooming woman that jumps in the canal 'll have to stop there; I've had enough of this." I made up the cost of a suit by adding to his fifteen shillings, and he went away to get one. But I know perfectly well that, whether he had on a new lavender suit or an old corduroy, it would be all the same to him—into the canal, river, or any other water, he would go instinctively when he heard the heavy splash in the darkness or fog.

An Amusing Rescue.

An amusing episode occurred with regard to a would-be suicide in the early part of one winter. A strong, athletic fellow, who had been a teacher of swimming at one of the London public baths, but who had lost position, had become homeless, and was quite on the down-grade. Half drunk, he found himself on the banks of the Lea, where the water was deep and the tide strong. Suddenly he called out, "I'll drown myself!" and into the water he went. The vagabond could not have drowned had he wished, for he was as much at home in the water as a rat. It was a moonlight night, and a party of men from Hoxton had come for a walk and a drink. One was a little fellow, well known in the boxing-ring. He also could swim a little, but not much. He heard the cry and the splash, and saw the body of the man lying still on the water. In he went, swam to the[Pg 185] body, and took hold of it. Suddenly there was a great commotion, for the little man had received a violent blow in the face from the supposed suicide. A fight ensued, but the swimmer held a great advantage over the boxer.

A boat arrived on the scene, and both were brought ashore exhausted. The swimmer recovered first, and was for making off, but was detained by the friends of the boxer, who, being recovered, walked promptly up to the big man and proposed a fight to the finish. This was accepted, but the little man was now in his element, and the big man soon had reason to know it. After a severe handling, he was given into custody for attempted suicide and assault, and appeared next day in the police-court, with cuts and bruises all over his face. The charge of attempted suicide was dismissed, but the magistrate fined him twenty shillings for assault. "Look at my face." "Yes," said the magistrate; "you deserve all that, and a month beside."

I give these examples of manly pluck to show that, in spite of all the demoralizing influence of slum life, and in spite of all the decay of manhood that must ensue from the terrible conditions that prevail, physical courage still exists among those born and bred in the slums, under the worst conditions of London life.

More Slum Heroes.

But higher kinds of courage are also manifested. Who can excel the people of our slums in true heroism? None! If I want to find someone that[Pg 186] satisfies my ideal of what a hero should be, down into the Inferno of the slums I go to seek him or her. It is no difficult search; they are to hand, and I know where to light on them. The faces of my heroes may be old and wrinkled, their arms may be skinny, and their bodies enfeebled; they may be racked with perpetual pain, and live in dire but reticent poverty; they may be working endless hours for three halfpence per hour, or lie waiting and hoping for death; they may be male or they may be female, for heroes are of no sex; but for examples of high moral courage—a courage that bids them suffer and be strong—come with me to the slums of London and see.

And how splendidly some of our poor widows' boys rise to their duties! What pluck, endurance, and enterprise they exhibit! Hundreds of such boys, winter and summer alike, rise about half-past four, are at the local dairy at five; they help to push milk-barrows till eight; and with a piece of bread and margarine off they go to school. After school-hours they are at the dairy again, washing the churns and milk-cans. Sharp-witted lads, too. They know how to watch their milk on a dark morning, and how to give evidence, too, when a thief is brought up. For supreme confidence in himself and an utter lack of self-consciousness or nervousness, commend me to these boys. They fear neither police nor magistrate. They are as fearless as they are natural; for adversity and hard work give them some compensation. But their dangers and temptations are many. So I love to think of the lads who have stood the test and have not yielded. I love[Pg 187] to think of the gladness of the widow's heart and her pride in the growing manliness of her boy—"So like his father."

I was visiting in the heart of Alsatia, and sat beside the bed of a dying youth whose twenty-first birthday had not arrived—which never did arrive. It was but a poor room, not over-clean. From the next room came the sound of a sewing-machine driven furiously, for a widow by its aid was seeking the salvation of herself and children. She was the landlady, and "let off" the upper part of the house. The dying youth was not her son; he belonged to the people upstairs. But the people upstairs were not of much account, for they spent their time largely away from home, and had scant care for their dying son; so the widow had brought his pallet-bed into the little room on the ground-floor wherein I sat, "that I might have an eye on him." There must have been some sterling qualities in the woman, though she was not much to look upon, was poorly clad, and wore a coarse apron over the front of her dress. Her hands were marked with toil and discoloured by leather, for she machined the uppers of women's and children's boots, and the smell of the leather was upon her; but she had a big heart, and though every time "she had an eye on him" meant ceasing her work and prolonging her labour, she could not keep away from him for long periods. But, my! how she did make that machine fly when she got back to it! Blessings on her motherly heart! There was no furniture in the room saving the little box and the chair I occupied. The ceiling was frightfully[Pg 188] discoloured, and the walls had not been cleaned for many a day. But a number of oil-paintings without frames were tacked on the walls, and these attracted my attention. Some were very crude, and others seemed to me to be good, so I examined them. They bore no name, but evidently they had been done by the same hand. Each picture bore a date, and by comparing them I could mark the progress of the artist. As I stood looking at them, forgetful of the dying youth below me, I said, half to myself: "I wonder who painted these." An unexpected and weak reply came from the bed: "The landlady's son." My interest was increased. "How old is he?" "About twenty." "What does he do?" "He works at a boot factory"; adding painfully: "He went back to work after having his dinner just before you came in." "Why," I said, after again examining the dates on the pictures, "he has been painting pictures for six years." "Yes. He goes to a school of art now after he has done his work." The youth began to cough, so I raised him up a little; but the landlady had heard him, and almost forestalled me. This gave me the opportunity I wanted, for when the youth was easier, I said to her: "You have an artist son, I see," pointing to the pictures. "Yes," she said; "his father did a bit." "How long has he been dead?" "Over seven years. I was left with four of them. My eldest is the painter." "What was your husband?" "A shoemaker." "How long have you lived here?" "Ever since I was married; I have kept the house on since his death." "Any other of your children paint?"[Pg 189] "The youngest boy does a bit, but he is only thirteen." "Have you any framed pictures?" "No; we cannot afford frames, but we shall, after a time, when he gets more money and the other boy goes out to work." "You are very good to this poor youth." "Well, I'm a mother. I must be good to him. I wish that I could do more for him." I never saw the consumptive lad again, for he died from h?morrhage the next day.

Some years afterwards I thought of the widow and her artist son, and being in the neighbourhood, I called at the house. She was still there, still making the machine fly. I inquired after her painter son. "Oh, he is married, and has two children; he lives just opposite." "What is he doing now?" "He has some machines, and works at home; his wife is a machinist too. They have three girls working for them." "I will step across and see him." "But you won't find him in: he goes out painting every day when it is fine." "Where has he gone to-day?" "Somewhere up the river." "How can he do machining if he goes out painting every day?" "He begins to work at five o'clock and goes on till nine o'clock, then cleans himself and goes off; he works again at night for four or five hours. His wife and the girls work in the daytime. His wife is a rare help to him; they are doing all right." &............
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