There was nothing else into which she could have put them. There was no crockery, or tinware, or tub, or bucket. There was an old gallipot or two, and there was a broken bottle or so, and there were some broken boxes for seats. The last small scraping of coals left was raked together in a corner of the floor. There were some rags in an open cupboard, also on the floor. In a corner of the room was a crazy old French bed-stead, with a man lying on his back upon it in a ragged pilot jacket, and rough oil-skin fantail hat. The room was perfectly black. It was difficult to believe, at first, that it was not purposely coloured black, the walls were so begrimed.
As I stood opposite the woman boiling the children's clothes,--she had not even a piece of soap to wash them with,--and apologising for her occupation, I could take in all these things without appearing to notice them, and could even correct my inventory. I had missed, at the first glance, some half a pound of bread in the otherwise empty safe, an old red ragged crinoline hanging on the handle of the door by which I had entered, and certain fragments of rusty iron scattered on the floor, which looked like broken tools and a piece of stove-pipe. A child stood looking on. On the box nearest to the fire sat two younger children; one a delicate and pretty little creature, whom the other sometimes kissed.
This woman, like the last, was wofully shabby, and was degenerating to the Bosjesman complexion. But her figure, and the ghost of a certain vivacity about her, and the spectre of a dimple in her cheek, carried my memory strangely back to the old days of the Adelphi Theatre, London, when Mrs. Fitzwilliam was the friend of Victorine.
'May I ask you what your husband is?'
'He's a coal-porter, sir,'--with a glance and a sigh towards the bed.
'Is he out of work?'
'Oh, yes, sir! and work's at all times very, very scanty with him; and now he's laid up.'
'It's my legs,' said the man upon the bed. 'I'll unroll 'em.' And immediately began.
'Have you any older children?'
'I have a daughter that does the needle-work, and I have a son that does what he can. She's at her work now, and he's trying for work.'
'Do they live here?'
'They sleep here. They can't afford to pay more rent, and so they come here at night. The rent is very hard upon us. It's rose upon us too, now,--sixpence a week,--on account of these new changes in the law, about the rates. We are a week behind; the landlord's been shaking and rattling at that door frightfully; he says he'll turn us out. I don't know what's to come of it.'
The man upon the bed ruefully interposed, 'Here's my legs. The skin's broke, besides the swelling. I have had a many kicks, working, one way and another.'
He looked at his legs (which were much discoloured and misshapen) for a while, and then appearing to remember that they were not popular with his family, rolled them up again, as if they were something in the nature of maps or plans that were not wanted to be referred to, lay hopelessly down on his back once more with his fantail hat over his face, and stirred not.
'Do your eldest son and daughter sleep in that cupboard?'
'Yes,' replied the woman.
'With the children?'
'Yes. We have to get together for warmth. We have little to cover us.'
'Have you nothing by you to eat but the piece of bread I see there?'
'Nothing. And we had the rest of the loaf for our breakfast, with water. I don't know what's to come of it.'
'Have you no prospect of improvement?'
'If my eldest son earns anything to-day, he'll bring it home. Then we shall have something to eat to-night, and may be able to do something towards the rent. If not, I don't know what's to come of it.'
'This is a sad state of things.'
'Yes, sir; it's a hard, hard life. Take care of the stairs as you go, sir,--they're broken,--and good day, sir!'
These people had a mortal dread of entering the workhouse, and received no out-of-door relief.
In another room, in still another tenement, I found a very decent woman with five children,--the last a baby, and she herself a patient of the parish doctor,--to whom, her husband being in the hospital, the Union allowed for the support of herself and family, four shillings a week and five loaves.