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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER XIV PEOPLE WHO HAVE "COME DOWN"
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London's abyss contains a very mixed population. Naturally the "born poor" predominate, of whom the larger portion are helpless and hopeless, for environment and temperament are against them.

Amongst these, but not of these, exists a strange medley of people who have "come down" in life. Drunkenness, fast living, gambling, and general rascality have hurried many educated men into the abyss; and such fellows descend to depths of wickedness and uncleanliness that the gross and ignorant poor cannot emulate, for nothing I have met in life is quite so disgusting and appalling as the demoralized educated men living in Inferno.

Misfortune, sorrow, ill-health, loss of friends, position or money, and ill-advised speculations, are often prime causes of "descent," producing pitiful lives and strange characters; while others—sometimes women, sometimes men—have been cursed by very small annuities, not sufficient for living purposes, but quite sufficient to prevent them attempting any honest labour. Often these[Pg 244] are ashamed to work, but by no means ashamed to beg. Clinging to the rags of their gentility, they exhibit open contempt for the ignorant poor, who treat them with awesome respect, because "they have come down in life."

The postman brings them numerous letters—replies to their systematic begging appeals—and not before a detective calls to make inquiries do the poor question the bona fides of, or lose their respect for, "the poor lady upstairs."

Backboneless men and women in a moral sense are numerous in the abyss, with no vices, but with virtues of a negative character. Possessing no grit, no adaptability, no idea of making a fight for life, they appear to think that because their parents were well-to-do, and they themselves had "received" an education, it is somebody's business to keep them. They are as sanguine as Mr. Micawber, always expecting something to "turn up," but never proceeding to turn up anything on their own account.

Waiting, hoping, starving, they go down to premature death—if, indeed, the workhouse infirmary does not swallow them alive.

But what courage and endurance, what industry and self-respect others exhibit, deprived by death or misfortune of the very means of existence, brought face to face with absolute poverty! Men and women, precipitated into the abyss through no fault of their own, shine resplendent in the dark regions they have been forced to inhabit. Not soured by misfortune, not despondent because of disappointment, hand in hand and heart to heart, I have seen elderly[Pg 245] couples living in one-roomed homes, joining bravely in the great struggle for existence.

Others are made bitter by their misfortune, and nurse a sense of their grievances; they "keep themselves to themselves," and generally put on airs and graces in any dealings they may have with their neighbours. They quickly resent any approach to friendship; any kindness done to them is received with freezing politeness, and any attempt to search out the truth with regard to their antecedents is the signal for storm. Personally, I have suffered much at the hands of scornful ladies "who have come down." Sometimes I am afraid that my patience and my temper have been exhausted when dealing with them, for such ladies require careful handling.

Experience is, however, a great teacher, and I learned at least to hear myself with becoming humility when such ladies condescended to receive at my hands any help that I might be able to give.

"Do you know, sir, that you are speaking to an officer's daughter? How dare you ask me for references! My word is surely good enough for a Police-Court Missionary. You are a fitting representative of your office. Please leave my room."

I looked at her. She was over sixty, and there was the unmistakable air about her that told of better days. She was starving in a little room situated in a little court—not St. James's. She owed a month's rent to people who were poor and ill, and who had two epileptics in the family; and now their worries were increased by the loss of rent, and the knowledge that they had a starving[Pg 246] "lady" upstairs. She had brought down to the abyss to keep her company a grandchild, a pretty boy of seven. I sat still, and she continued: "I know I am poor, but still I have some self-respect, and I will not be insulted. References, indeed!" "Well, madam," I at length ventured to say, "you sought my help; I did not seek you." "Yes; and I made a great mistake. Sir, are you going?" "No, madam, I am not going at present, for I am going to pay the rent you owe the poor, suffering people below. Shame on you! Have you no thought for them? How are they to pay their rent if yours remains unpaid? Please don't put on any airs, and don't insult me, or I will have you and the child taken to the workhouse. Find me your rent-book."

She sat down and cried. I called the child to me, and from my bag produced some cake, fruit, and sweets, filling the child's pinafore. He instantly began to eat, and running to the irate lady, said: "Look, grandma, what the gentleman has given me! Have some—do have some, grandma."

That was oil on the fire.

"I knew you were no gentleman; now I know that you are a coward. You know that I cannot take them away from the child." I said: "I should be ashamed of you if you had, and I should have left your room and never re-entered it. See how the child is enjoying those grapes! Do have some with him. Let us be friends. Bring your grandma some grapes." And as the child came to her, I saw the light of love in her old eyes—that wonderful love of a grandmother. The child's enjoyment of the food conquered her: the child[Pg 247] "beguiled her, and she did eat"; but she considered I had taken a mean advantage, and she never thoroughly forgave me—never, though we became cool friends.

I found the utmost difficulty in obtaining her confidence, although I visited her many times, and removed her most pressing wants.

She was always on heights to which I could not hope to attain, and she treated me with becoming, but freezing, dignity. I wanted to be of assistance to her, but she made my work difficult and my task thankless. When I called upon her one day to pay a week's rent, etc., she said in a lofty way: "Small assistance is of little use to me, but I can't expect anything better from one in your position." I put up with the snub, and humbly told her that it would be possible for me to do more if she would condescend to give me the names and addresses of her friends.

This bare suggestion was enough. She rose majestically, opened the room door, and in a dramatic manner said, "Go!" I sat still, and examined some needlework she was doing for a factory. Beautiful work it was—all done by hand. I knew that she would not earn more than one penny per hour, for her eyes were getting dim, and the room was not well lighted. So I talked about her work and her pay. Many times since that day have I been glad that I stayed on after that unceremonious "Go," for I learned a lesson worth the knowing, for as I sat the postman's tap-tap was heard, and the epileptic girl from below brought up a letter. "Excuse me, sir, while I read this," she said. I, of course, bowed [Pg 248]acquiescence, and watched her while she read. I saw her tremulous fingers and quivering face. Presently she sat down; the letter and a ten-pound note dropped on the floor. For a moment she sat quite silent, then the tears burst forth. She rose, picked up the letter and note, and her eyes flashed as she cried: "Read that! read that! and then dare to ask me for a reference." She threw the letter at me. It was from an old servant of hers, who was a cook for a regimental officers' mess, getting forty pounds a year. This is the letter:

    "Dear Mrs. ——,

    "Yesterday I received my quarter's salary, and I am sending it to you, hoping that you will kindly receive it as a small acknowledgment of your many kindnesses to me.

    "When I think of the happy days I spent in your service, of your goodness to everyone in trouble, and of the beautiful home you have lost, I cannot rest night or day. I wish I could send you a hundred times as much, that I might really help you and the dear little boy."

The letter was better than any testimonial; it was too much for me. "Madam," I said, "I am very sorry that I hurt your feelings by questioning you. That letter makes me ashamed. It more than answers any questions I put to you. Will you kindly lend me the letter, that I may show it to my friend?"

She looked triumphant, and said that I might have the letter for a short time. I sent the letter[Pg 249] to ladies and gentlemen who had not "come down." Some old friends were found who cheerfully subscribed a sufficient sum to furnish a commodious boarding-house in a fashionable watering-place, so she again had a beautiful home of her own. But she was very "touchy," and I had no pleasant task in making arrangements. She never gave me the least credit, and it always appeared that she was conferring favours by allowing me the privilege of consulting her.

However, the boarding-house was ready at last. She entered possession, and with some help prepared to receive visitors. My wife, myself, and some friends were her first "paying guests," paying, of course, the usual charges. We spent a miserable three weeks. We were not of the class she wanted and had been used to; she kept us in our places. I had to speak to her, and treat her as a distinguished, but quite unknown, lady. We were all glad when our time for leaving came; neither have we paid her another visit.

She was a remarkable woman, indomitable, industrious, and clever: cooking, or managing a house, needlework, dressmaking, or anything pertaining to woman's life, she was equal to; but her superiority was too much for us all. We could not live up to it—the strain was too great.

She, however, did us a great honour the day previous to our leaving. As a special favour, she invited us to take tea with her in the "boudoir." The remembrance of that occasion remains with me through the years. She prepared not only a nice little tea, with cream, knick-knacks, etc., but the room was tastefully decorated, and she was[Pg 250] suitably arrayed. Her old silks and laces had been renovated, her old jewellery polished and attended to; and at a definite time, after a formal invitation, we were ushered into the "boudoir." She rose and gracefully bowed as we were announced, and directed us to our seats. We had a stiff time of it. No doubt it was good discipline for us all, for we realized more fully than ever the inferiority of our birth, breeding, and manners.

Poor woman! She never forgave us for knowing that she had been in the "abyss," neither did she ever forgive me for helping her out. Our acquaintance ended with that five o'clock tea in her "boudoir." She has not written to me, neither have I inquired after her. Freely will I forgive her all the snubs and insults she flung at me if she will "keep her distance." She was a terror. One in a lifetime is quite sufficient for me.

Still, she was a good woman, and I can only suppose that privations and disappointments had on the one side embittered her, and on the other had developed a natural feeling until it became a craze, and the idea of being a "lady" dominated her existence.

Some men, too, that have come down are by no means pleasant companions—often the reverse. Several clergymen that I saw much of were too terrible for words, so I pass them; but of one I must tell, for when I called on him in the early afternoon, he was lying on a miserable bed, unwashed, wearing a cassock. Penny packets of[Pg 251] cigarettes—five for a penny—were strongly in evidence. There being no chairs in the room, I sat down upon an inverted packing-case.

He rose from his bed, lit another cigarette, and asked me what I wanted. I had previously spoken to his wife, and had made up my mind that she was demented. I had seen a big-headed girl of seventeen, with a vacant face and thick, slobbering lips, nursing and laughing over a little doll. I had also spoken to a cunning-looking boy of fourteen. I had now to speak to a demoralized clergyman.

I felt that a horsewhip was needed more than the monetary help that I was commissioned to offer from friends, on certain conditions being complied with.

He was a choice specimen of manhood: his reading seemed confined to penny illustrated papers of a dubious kind, embellished with questionable pictures. He no sooner learned that friends had empowered me to act for them than his estimate of himself went up considerably. His market value went up also.

Thirty shillings per week was not enough; he was not to be bought at the price. He must also have his wardrobe replenished. The Bishop must find him a curacy. No, he would not leave London. Preaching to intelligent people was his vocation. He was a Welshman, but London was good enough for him. I sat on the box and listened; the vacant-faced girl with her doll sat on another box in front of me; the clergyman in his cassock, cigarette in his fingers while he talked, and in his lips when he was silent, sat[Pg 252] on the edge of the bed; and his demented wife stood by.

Such was my introduction to the fellow, of whom I saw much during the next three years; but every time I met him I became the more enamoured of the horsewhip treatment.

For three years he received more than generous help from friends of the Church, who were anxious for his good, and more than anxious that no scandal should come upon the Church they loved. It was all in vain, and the last sight I had of him was in Tottenham, where I studiously avoided him; but, nevertheless, I had opportunities of watching him. He stood outside a public-house. He wore an old clerical coat, green and greasy; his clerical collar was crumpled and dirty; his boots were old and broken, and his trousers were frayed and torn. He had a rough stick in his hand and an old cloth cap on his head. The cunning-looking boy has been in the hands of the police for snatching a lady's purse, and the imbecile girl, now a woman, continues to nurse her doll somewhere in London's abyss; for the demented mother loves her afflicted child, and only death will part them.

Artists are numerous among those who have "come down." I never meet a poor fellow in London's streets carrying a picture wrapped in canvas without experiencing feelings of deepest pity. One look at such a man tells me whether his picture has been done to order, or whether he is seeking, rather than hoping to find, a customer. The former goes briskly enough to his destination,[Pg 253] and though he will receive but little payment from the picture-dealer, he sorely needs that little, and hastens to get it.

But the other poor fellow has no objective: he walks slowly and aimlessly about; there is a wistful, shamefaced air about him. When he arrives at a picture-dealer's, he enters with reluctance and timidity. Sometimes broken-down men will hawk their pictures from door to door, and will sell decent pictures, upon which they have spent much time and labour, for a few shillings. Occasionally an alert policeman watches them, and ultimately arrests them for hawking goods and not being in possession of the necessary licence.

A boy of fourteen who was hawking his father's pictures was arrested and charged. The police had discovered that he did not hold a pedlar's licence. The pictures were quite works of art, done on pieces of cardboard about twelve inches square, some being original sketches; others were copies of famous pictures. They were done in black-and-white, and competent judges declared that the work was exceedingly well done. The boy said his father was ill in bed, and had sent him out to sell the pictures; his mother was dead, and his father and himself lived together in Hackney.

I went with the boy to their one room, and there, in a miserable street and in a still more miserable room, lay the artist in bed. There was nothing of any value in the room, excepting some pictures, and as I entered I found him sitting up in bed at work upon another. They had no money[Pg 254] at all, and that morning the boy had been sent out to try and sell the pictures and bring back food and coals. The lad's mother had died some years before, and the father and son were living together.

The father had learned no other business, and at one time there was some demand for his work, so he married. One can easily picture the life they led—the gradual shadows, the disappointments that came upon the wife, the hopeless struggle with poverty, the early death, and the misery of the husband when the partner of his poverty was taken away. Now, partly paralyzed in his legs, some days able to rise and dress himself and pay an occasional call on the "trade," and to return home more hopeless, he was glad to sell a picture for five shillings, unframed, that had cost him much effort and time.

I bought one of his pictures at a fair price, and saw that he had both food and coals, for it was winter-time. I called on him frequently, and did what I could to cheer him, and other friends bought his pictures. But he gradually grew worse in health, until the gates of one of our great infirmaries closed upon him, and the world saw him no more, and it was left to me to make some suitable provision for the boy.

One Christmas Eve some years ago there was a cry of "Police! police!" In a little upper room in North London an elderly man had been found in a pool of blood; his throat had been cut, and as a razor lay beside him, it was evident the injury was self-inflicted. It was a frightful gash,[Pg 255] but he was carried to a neighbouring hospital, where all the resources of skill and science were at hand. In three months' time he was able to stand in the dock, and evidence was given against him. He was sixty-three years of age, had on a very old frock-coat that had been originally blue, and an ancient fez that bore traces of silver braid. When the evidence had been taken, and the magistrate was about to commit him for trial, a singular-looking man stepped up, and said he was the prisoner's brother, and that he would take care of him if his Worship would discharge him. He said a friend had given his brother some drink, and it was when under the influence of the drink that the prisoner had tried to ............
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