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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER XII OLD BOOTS AND SHOES
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One hundred pairs of old boots and shoes that have been cast off by the very poor present a deplorable sight—a sight that sets one thinking. Many times I have regretted that I did not call in a photographer before they were hurried off to the local dust-destructor. What a tale they told! or rather what a series of tragedies they revealed! There was a deeply pathetic look about every pair: they looked so woefully, so reproachfully, at me as I contemplated them. They seemed to voice not only their own sufferings, but also the wrongs and privations of the hundred poor widows who had discarded them; for these widows, poor as they were, had cast them off. The boots and shoes seemed to know all about it, and to resent the slight inflicted on them; henceforth even the shambling feet of poor old women were to know them no more. They had not a coy look among them; not an atom of sauciness or independence could I discover; but, crushed and battered, meek and humiliated, they lay side by side, knowing their days were over, and pitifully asking for prompt dissolution. What a[Pg 213] mixed lot they were! No two pairs alike. Some of the couples were not pairs, for a freak of fortune had united odd boots in the bond of sufferings and the gall of poverty. Many of them had come down in life; they had seen better days. Well-dressed women had at some time stepped daintily in them, but that was when the sheen of newness was upon them and the days of their youth were not ended. In those days the poor old boots were familiar with parks, squares, and gardens, and well-kept streets of the West; but latterly they have only been too familiar with the slums and the grime of the East. How I wished they could speak and tell of the past! How came it about that, after such a splendid beginning, they had come to such a deplorable end? Had the West End lady died? Had her wardrobe been sold to a dealer? What had been the intermediate life of the boots before they were placed, patched and cobbled, in the dirty window of a fusty little second-hand shop in Hoxton? I know the widow that bought them and something of her life; I can appreciate the effort she made to get possession of them. She paid two shillings and sixpence for them, but not all at once—oh dear, no! Week by week she carried threepence to the man who kept the fusty little shop. He cheerfully received her payments on account, meanwhile, of course, retaining possession of the coveted boots. It took her four months to pay for them, for her payments had not been quite regular. What would have become of the payments made if the widow had died before the completion of purchase, I need not say, but I am quite sure[Pg 214] the boots would have speedily reappeared in the shop window. But, after all, I am not sure that the old cobbler was any worse in his dealings with the poor than more respectable people are; for pawnbroking, money-lending, life assurance, and furniture on the hire system among the poor are founded on exactly the same principles. How much property has been lost, how many policies have been forfeited, because poor people have been unable to keep up their payments, we do not know; if we did, I am quite sure that it would prove a revelation. In this respect the thriftiness of the poor is other people's gain.

It was a triumph of pluck and grit, for at the end of four long months the widow received her cobbled boots. Her half-crown had been completed. "I had them two years; they lasted me well—ever so much better than a cheap new pair," the widow told me; nevertheless, she was glad to leave them behind and go home with her feet shod resplendently in a new pair of seven-and-elevenpenny. She might venture to lift the front of her old dress now as she crossed the street, and I am sure that she did not forget to do it, for she was still a woman, in spite of all, and had some of that quality left severe people call vanity, but which I like to think of as self-respect.

"How is it," I was asked by a critical lady, "that your poor women let their dresses drag on the pavement and crossings? I never see any of them lift their dresses behind or in front. They must get very dirty and insanitary." "My dear madam," I replied, "they dare not, for neither their insteps nor their heels are presentable;[Pg 215] but give them some new boots, and they will lift their dresses often enough and high enough."

There was another pair, too, that had come down, and they invited speculative thought. They were not born in the slums or fitted for the slums, but they came into a poor widow's possession nevertheless. They had not been patched or cobbled, and just enough of their former glory remained to allow of judgment being passed upon them. They had been purchased at a "jumble sale" for threepence, and were dear at the price. The feet that had originally worn them had doubtless trodden upon carpet, and rested luxuriantly upon expensive hearthrugs. They were shoes, if you please, with three straps across the insteps, high, fashionable heels, buckles and bows in front. But their high heels had disappeared, the buckles had long since departed, the instep straps were broken and dilapidated, the pointed toes were open, and the heels were worn down. When completely worn out and unmendable, some lady had sent them to a local clergyman for the benefit of the poor. I gazed on them, and then quite understood, not for the first time, that there is a kind of charity that demoralizes the poor, but it is a charity that is not once blessed.

Here was an old pair of "Plimsolls," whose rubber soles had long ago departed; there a pair of shoes that had done duty at the seaside, whose tops had originally been brown canvas, and whose soles had been presumably leather; here a pair of "lace-ups"; there a pair of "buttons"—but the lace-holes were all broken, and buttons were not to be seen.

[Pg 216]

But whatever their style and make had been, and whoever might have been their original wearers, they had now one common characteristic—that of utter and complete uselessness. I ought to have been disgusted with the old rubbish, but somehow the old things appealed to me, though they seemed to reproach me, and lay their social death to my charge and their present neglect to my interference. But gladness was mixed with pathos, for I knew that a hundred widows had gone to their homes decently booted on a dismal Christmas Eve.

But now, leaving the old boots to the fate that awaited them, I will tell of the women who had so recently possessed them.

It had long been a marvel to me how the very poor obtained boots of any sort and kind. I had learned so much of their lives and of their ways and means that I realized boots and shoes for elderly widows or young widows with children must be a serious matter. Accordingly, at this particular Christmas I issued, on behalf of the Home Workers' Aid Association, invitations to one hundred widows to my house, where each widow was to receive a new pair of boots and Christmas fare. They came, all of them, and as we kept open house all day, I had plenty of time to converse with them individually. I learned something that day, so I want to place faithfully before my readers some of the things that happened and some of the stories that were told.

One of the first to arrive was an elderly widow, accompanied by her epileptic daughter, aged thirty. I looked askance at the daughter, and[Pg 217] said to the widow: "I did not invite your daughter." "No, sir; but I thought you would not mind her com............
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